Posts Tagged ‘ William Shakespeare ’

Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem”

The Prince Hal Problem

Chimes at Midnight-Final Scene

Final shot in Chimes at Midnight: As Falstaff’s coffin is wheeled out of the inn into the blighted landscape, Ralph Richardson narrates the virtues of the new king: “… he left no offense vnpunished, nor fréendship vnrewarded … for conclusion, a maiestie was he that both liued & died a paterne in princehood, a lode-starre in honour, and … famous to the world alwaie.” (Holinshed, Chronicles …, Vol. VI, p. 583 (1587 ed.).)

Since the post on Chimes at Midnight two months ago, I kept coming back in my mind to the “Hal question.” In this piece I will look at how Shakespeare himself delineated Prince Hal (before he became Henry V), how critics and other analysts considered Hal’s behavior and then return to the treatment by Orson Welles. To summarize that discussion: How are we to relate to the character of Prince Hal, who is portrayed in the film as a calculating manipulator, one who while heir apparent idles his time drinking and whoring, at a time when the kingdom is threatened with civil war? He choses to carouse with an alcoholic knight, who clearly cherishes him, intending all the while to banish the affection of him and his friends so that his apparent reformation will astonish the people of England, his future subjects. Although the film is the story of the old knight, Sir John Falstaff, the character of the prince is the central character in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV, Part OneHenry IV, Part Two and Henry V. Indeed the tetralogy, beginning with Richard II, seems designed (at least in retrospect, Shakespeare probably did not have this clear intention when he began with Richard II) to build toward the glorification of Prince Hal, as Henry V the valiant victor at Agincourt and the most important English historical hero in all of Shakespeare’s works.

In its outward appearance the behavior of Hal is not remarkable. He is simply a young man sowing his wild oats, who, when he becomes king, decides to reform abruptly and take on his responsibilities. Such a transformation in anyone is not a particularly common occurrence, but it is not difficult to see how a fictional story can be made of it, although as a plot it is more likely in temperance-born again-revivalist stories than in any good literature. And Shakespeare makes the task much more difficult by inserting a soliloquy signaling his intention to reform later at the beginning of our view of Hal’s relationship with Falstaff, a particularly inappropriate time to declare such a secret intention, especially as it takes place just after he has agreed to participate in a highway robbery! And when he finally rejects Falstaff (a play later), Hal, now King Henry V, does it with such brutality, for which he has not prepared Falstaff, that in the end it is clear that “the King has killed his heart,” as Hostess Quickly says in the (next) play (Henry V, II:i:84) (and Pym (?) in the movie). The violence of the rejection seems to be part of his original plan, that

… when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
(Henry IV, Part One, I:ii:206-13.)

It is apparently planned ruthlessness designed to make him all the more remarkable.

So there are two related questions: How are we to understand Hal in the original plays? and does Welles attempt to solve the problem in the film and, if so, how?

Conveniently, last week Trinity College’s Cinestudio began a three day showing of the restored film. To prepare for it, and to see what I could come with on my own, I carefully reread Richard IIHenry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. I also read a variety of commentaries on the works (which historically mostly focuses on the character of Falstaff), particularly on commentaries on Elizabethan stage presentation, literary character analysis, literary psychoanalysis and myth-folk lore analysis of the plays. As for Welles, I read again the playscript for his Five Kings, the 1939 Mercury Theater production of the same plays. I also reviewed as many interviews of Welles on his approach to Shakespeare as I could find. And for good measure I watched the two other Shakespeare plays Welles filmed—Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952)—as well as the Omnibus television version of King Lear (1953), which was directed not by Welles but rather by Peter Brook (who also wrote the teleplay), who would go on to film the play 18 years later with Paul Scofield as Lear. Welles, however, played Lear in the teleplay. I also listened to the Shakespeare-based radio broadcasts by Welles on the CBS radio network (all of which can be heard via The Internet Archive): Hamlet (Fall 1937,  CBS Workshop, with Ray Collins), Julius Caesar (September 11, 1938, Mercury Theatre on the Air) and Scenes from King Lear (1946, Mercury Summer Theatre).

With this basis I think we can come to some supportable observations about how Shakespeare treated the “Hal problem” (which is the crucial component in the characterization of Falstaff), how we can interpret Hal and Falstaff psychologically, and how all this allows us to evaluate Welles’s film. But first, the reviewing and the other thinking crystalized certain observations about Welles as a film-maker that I omitted in the last post, failed to elaborate satisfactorily or missed in my earlier view of the movie. So I’ll make three observations before returning to the questions I posed.

Digression: Three Additional Style Observations on Chimes at Midnight

Othello (Welles) departing from where he overheard (he thought) proof that cassio proof of Desdamona's infidelity. He is now completely captive in the snare created by Iago.

Othello (Welles) departing from where he overheard (he thought) proof that Cassio told of Desdemona’s infidelity. He is now completely captive in the snare created by Iago and he is seen as though in a cage. and darkness obscures most of our view of him.

First, in all his Shakespeare films, Welles has a superb visual style. It is not necessarily a personal style (in the way that we can say Eisenstein, Bergman and Malick, for examples, have personal styles), because it is subordinate to individual movies rather than an overall “aesthetic.” The cage motif in Othello, for example, is stunning. At the beginning of the film (which takes place after the end of the play) Iago is hoisted in cage where he will presumably die. Welles told Bogdanovich that the idea for the cage came from the treatment of defeated Berber guerrilla leader Abd el-Krim, who was driven in a mule-drawn cage to show tribes during the Riff War. As a punishment for Iago it is entirely consistent with the play, which has Iago explaining early on (I:i) that if he did not hide his true intent (to poison Othello’s mind) he would “wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at.” In the cage, after he has been exposed, he will die with jackdaws (corvids, i.e., crows) and other birds pecking at his flesh. But that is just the beginning. The cross-hatch shadows and cage-like window fixtures and other spatial divides continue through the film. And increasingly the cross-hatches and their shadows separate us from what takes place on screen. Othello is a prisoner of his own naiveté, jealousy and misplaced trust. And much like Desdemona herself, we find ourselves caught within or viewing into a snare we did not create but cannot escape.

The long crane shot is probably his signature visual expression, but all the famous examples (the opening of Touch of Evil, the warehouse scene in Citizen Kane and the ballroom scene in The Magnificent Ambersons) serve a narrative purpose. Of course such shots could only take place when Welles had the resources of a studio. But even when the studio provided the train set that every boy wanted (in Welles’s famous quote) they never understood what could be achieved. So for reasons that defy explanation, they broke up the continuous ballroom shot in Ambersons, probably for the same reason that public high school administrators destroy student individuality—because they are stupid and because they can. Lacking the full technical apparatus that Hollywood studios would have provided him, these long crane shots are missing from the Shakespeare movies, but other devices abound.

Hal addressing the body of his foe/double Hotspur as verdant England symbolizes the birth of the heir apparent.

Hal addressing the body of his foe/double Hotspur as verdant England symbolizes the birth of the heir apparent. Welles’s scenery and staging is reminiscent of compositions by Thomas Gainsborough (except for the corpse).

I already noted some visual highlights of Chimes at Midnight: the austere court scenes with their militaristic trappings, the deadened outdoor landscapes (the fields around Justice Shallow’s estate, the battleground at Shrewsbury and the burial field of Falstaff, for examples). There is one scene that on reviewing is quite noteworthy. The only scene of “normal” life with vegetation is when Prince Hal is talking to the dead Hotspur. Behind him are trees that look just like “England in springtime.” This would be a perfect visual cue for Hal’s “rebirth,” which it is in the film (at least the beginning of the rebirth) but given the plot vagaries (discussed below) that is not the case in the plays.

The set and view of the large room in Shallow’s estate with Falstaff in the deep background and Shallow and Silence in the foreground—Shallow on the floor after a night of drinking—provide the perfect visual context for Falstaff’s musings on the vanities of old men. The ground level view (what Marlene Dietrich called Welles’s “frog’s eye view”) allows Falstaff to tower over us in the triumph of discovering that Hal has become Henry V. We watch Falstaff’s joy as though from the front row below the apron, knowing all the while that his delusion will end in humiliation. (The difference between tragedy and comedy is always a matter of personal taste.)

All of this seems to me to put to rest all the attempts to attribute the visual magic of Kane solely to Gregg Tolland.

Second, Falstaff is finally a role that Welles fully inhabited. From the beginning, way back in Federal Theatre Project and Mercury Theatre days, there was always the nagging doubt that Welles could truly act rather than simply rely on his baritone voice and idiosyncratic pacing. It is true that as some pointed out during the run of Five Kings, early on Welles depended in his recitation of Shakespearean (and Marlowian) verse on peculiar tempos, with word groups followed by odd pauses unrelated to meaning. You can hear this peculiarity by listening to Welles’s Brutus in Julius Caesar or indeed any other role in his radio broadcasts. It is also true that Welles depended more on poses than Method early on. You can see a bit of this in his film role of Macbeth. If you trace him from Othello through King Lear to Falstaff, you will see that the mannerisms are gradually shed and in Chimes at Midnight he becomes Falstaff rather than simply representing him.

Falstaff: “[H]ow subject we old men are to this vice of lying! This same starved justice hath done nothing but prate to me of the wildness of his youth, … every third word a lie” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:292-96.) Silence (Walter Chiari), Shallow (Alan Webb) and Falstaff (Welles), l-r.

Finally, the soundscape of Welles’s films is quite striking, and it is particularly notable on experiencing several films together. It’s hard to imagine how revolutionary the sound of Citizen Kane was at the time. Kenneth Tynan attended it five times in short order and one time closed his eyes solely to absorb the sound of the film. Of course, Kane had music by Bernard Herrmann. Brilliant in itself, the score (including and especially the composed “opera” that Susan Alexander attempts to master) quietly underlies the disintegration of Kane. The Germanic opera leitmotif semblance (music this time by Jacques Ibert1) was again tried in Welles’s Macbeth, which enhanced the obviously low-budget set. That score was spoiled only by the overly bright “triumph theme” (of the forces attacking Dunsinane). The Herrmann score for Kane, by contrast, is truly a moving work, intellectual and subtle. It will be a long time before we hear that quality of music in American movies. The local strip mall multiplexes are equipped with very loud (but low quality) speakers, designed for the banal hammering in movies like Inception, where special effects and loud minimalist music is supposed to cover poor writing and insipid plot. Although Welles (according to Virgil Thompson) had no especial ear for music, he always knew what “worked.” If one compares the released version of Touch of Evil with the version much later produced according to Welles’s 58-page post-production memo, it is entirely obvious who knew how the movie should sound, as between Welles and the studio flacks who commissioned a Mancini score!

Once Welles was cut off from the studio system he was forced to contract with composers (or rely on classical music in the public domain). For both Othello and Chimes at Midnight Welles made the inspired choice of Angelo Lavagnino as composer. (Welles told Bogdanovich that Lavignino also composed a completely different score for Welles’s later stage version of Othello.) Lavagnino’s score for the film Othello is chilling. From the very beginning (with the simultaneous funerals of the pagan Othello and the Christian Desdemona and the caging of Iago) we are in the grip of music that is profoundly “epic,” although it marries the modern with the pre-Baroque. Like the score of Kane it is not intrusive, but holds our attention as we watch the trap that Iago devises to ensnare two helpless victims. The score of Chimes at Midnight is equally effective and involved a wider range, including folk dances, court music, the background for a brutal battle scene, chant-song and the melancholy backings for several soliloquies. As with all of Welles’s films (except when the studio interfered as it did with Touch of Evil), the musical score does not intrude; nevertheless, some figures remain with you long after the film is over (as does the general atmosphere of the film which is intertwined with them).

But the musical score is not the only part of the soundscape of this film. Throughout Chimes at Midnight, we hear the natural sounds that place in context and comment on the action and the places where it takes place: church bells in the background, dogs running through the common spaces, soldiers’ boots tromping on stone (an effect Welles discovered in his Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar), rain outdoors and the wind that swirls as the armies are about to face off. The battle scene (which lasts quite long and marks a turning point for the characters in the movie, and to a lesser extent in Henry IV, Part One) is filled with thuds of clubs and swords hitting bodies, hisses of arrows, whistling of slings, the metallic clangs of armor and swords and the slosh and squelch of mud under foot of the fighting and under the parts of those engaged in the lonely and futile struggle to live. The human voice is also used as part of the soundscape independent of the dialogue. Conversations overlap to keep scenes moving (a trick he developed in his Mercury Theatre plays), crowd noises punctuate speeches, and rather than have everyone miked at the same volume, Welles tries to simulate the location of characters within large spaces or long hallways by positioning the microphone where the camera is, rather than where the character is. This concern for three-dimensional placement is similar to his interest in “deep focus” in Kane (although in some ways it works in the converse way since there is no equal auditory access as there is visual access in the camera technique, rather we hear less distinctly the voices that are farther away). This technique is especially notable after the death of Henry IV, when Hal addresses the courtiers. We hear him up close, next to him, as he addresses the crowd in the large room separated by the long, narrow walkway to the throne, and then we hear him from behind the crowd in the large room. The change subtly marks the transition of Hal from a private person we know intimately to the public figure we can only distantly observe.

I will note one other feature of the film, Welles’s editing of the plays, in the course of the discussion of the “Hal problem,” which begins, as it must, with Shakespeare’s own treatment.

How Shakespeare Created the “Prince Hal Problem”

The place to begin is the constraint I suppose Shakespeare felt so as not to depart too greatly from popular conception of Hal (who had become a highly popular king in England’s historical imagination by Shakespeare’s time). And that conception ultimately comes from England’s preeminent historical popularizer of the time, Raphael Holinshed. His Chronicles treats the issue of Hal’s youthful behavior rather gingerly. It is worth setting out the passage at full length inasmuch as it not only deals with the wild oats supposedly sown by Hal, but also his confrontation with his father Henry IV and Hal’s volte-face.

Thus were the father and the sonne reconciled, be|twixt whom the said pickthanks had sowne diuision, insomuch that the sonne vpon a vehement conceit of vnkindnesse sproong in the father, was in the waie to be worne out of fauour. Which was the more like|lie to come to passe, by their informations that priui|lie charged him with riot and other vnciuill demea|nor vnséemelie for a prince. Indeed he was youthful|lie giuen, growne to audacitie, and had chosen him companions agréeable to his age; with whome he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and de|lights as he fansied. But yet (it should séeme by the report of some writers) that his behauiour was not offensiue or at least tending to the damage of anie bodie; sith he had a care to auoid dooing of wrong, and to tedder his affections within the tract of ver|tue, whereby he opened vnto himselfe a redie passage of good liking among the prudent sort, and was be|loued of such as could discerne his disposition, which was in no degrée so excessiue, as that he deserued in such vehement maner to be suspected. In whose dis|praise I find little, but to his praise verie much, par|cell whereof I will deliuer by the waie as a metyard whereby the residue may be measured. (Holingshed, Chronicles … (1587 ed.), Volume 6, page 539. For  version of this passage with modernized spelling by Rosemary Gaby’s see Note 2 below.)

Holinshed’s treatment of the reign of Henry V is heavily varnished hagiography. So I suspect that if there were not a strong tradition of Hal’s dissolute youth, Holinshed would just as soon have passed over it, particularly given that the sudden change plays no heroic or moralistic role in the historian’s story of Hal’s life. Indeed, he treats Hal’s behavior defensively, alternating between attributing it to the gossip of pickthanks (a word that sadly is not often seen these days, which causes me to overuse lickspittle) and minimizing the severity of the misbehavior. This suggests that his readers must already have believed in Hal’s youthful reputation, otherwise, why would he include it?

Shakespeare could have followed Holinghed’s lead and downplayed the stories, but he ventured in the other direction. Far from participating in only harmless pranks, Hal is made to agree to join Falstaff in a highway robbery. (It is true that he does so only to trick Falstaff and Hal never joins in the robbery, but he nonetheless agrees to the plot, furthers its enterprise and thus under law would be guilty as a joint venturer, just as Northumberland is later a party to the rebellion by agreeing to and furthering it, even though he fails to participate at the last minute). Shortly after he became king (in the previous play), Henry complained to Hotspur’s father that Hal daily frequented taverns “With unrestrained loose companions, / Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes, / And beat our watch, and rob our passengers …” (Richard II, V:iii:7-9). By playing up Hal’s transgressions, Shakespeare emphasizes the differences between Hal and Hotspur, in order to measure Hal’s aptitude to succeed his father (or at least to test his father’s patience). To make this comparison, Shakespeare treats Hotspur and Hal as equivalent in age, something not found in Holinshed, and in fact untrue. Hotspur in life was only three years younger than Henry IV and 22 years older than Prince Hal.  It is thus not a wish that plausibly could have occurred to the king that “some night-tripping fairy had exchanged / In cradle-clothes our children where they lay, / And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!” as Henry fantasizes (Henry IV, Part One, I:i:86-88) when comparing Hotspur’s martial virtues to Hal’s “riot and dishonour.” (By changing the age of Hotspur for the first Henry IV play Shakespeare also contradicts Richard II, which has Hotspur meeting the young Henry (then Bolingbroke) when the latter returned prematurely from exile at Ravenspurgh, as Hotspur himself reminds the audience in Henry IV, Part One (I:iii:244). (Shakespeare not only neglected established facts, he often contradicted events that he himself made up.3) Thus it seems that Shakespeare went out of his way to deal with Hal’s riotous youth so that we can watch Hal overshadow Hotspur and become the glorious Henry V, victor of Agincourt (among the many other virtues that Holinshed lists, but Shakespeare ignores).

Hal (Keith Baxter): “Yet herein I shall imitate the sun …” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:195).

What then are we to make of Hal’s soliloquy, announcing his plan to continue his debauchery until such time as he is required to convert and then change completely to the amazement of all? We could attribute this to self-delusion (all dissolutes think their debauchery can continue to some unspecified future time; and that he compares his eventual reformation to the sun emerging from behind clouds might support this thought), except that in the end he does reform. We could look at it as an aspiration which he works to bring to fruition, and against all odds succeeds. This might have been the interpretation if Henry IV, Part One were the only play. For in it Hal carouses only until it’s necessary for him (and Falstaff and his retainers) to “go to the wars” to face the forces of Hotspur. In the meantime he is aware that he really doesn’t measure up to Hotspur (“I am not yet of Percy’s mind”), a man who has already covered himself in glory with a reputation of ferociousness which Hal bravely parodies: “he that kills me some six or seven / dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says / to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life, I want work'” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:101-03).

When summoned before the king and facing the dressing down that Henry V has been waiting to deliver, Hal acknowledges his misbehavior (with extenuation for the exaggerations of “smiling pickthanks and base newsmongers”) and vows to take Hotspur down in combat in order to “redeem all this on Percy’s head, / And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son …” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:132-34). At Shrewsbury he offers to save the destruction of innocents in both armies by adding to Henry’s offer of reconciliation by engaging in sole combat with Hotspur. In the battle that follows the refusal, Hal saves his father from certain death then goes on to kill Hotspur. One would expect that his conduct in this battle would mark the promised reformation and Hal’s rejection of Falstaff (who had falsely claimed that he killed Hotspur upon his revival after after Hal left the scene), but no! The play ends with Henry IV ordering his forces to carry the fight to the rebel in the north and the east.

In Henry IV, Part Two, Hal returns from the east, and the cycle begins again. (It’s as though the two plays were about alcoholics and their codependents.) With his father physically ill, Hal pairs up again with Poins and again heads to the tavern to play a prank on Falstaff. More merriment ensues. Hal does not chastise Falstaff for his conduct at Shrewsbury, nor warn him that when he assumes the throne, he must dissociate himself from his “riotous” friends. And so, Falstaff goes on to aid the prince’s brother in the north (Hal stays behind as part of Henry’s plan to divide him from Falstaff), and when he comes back Falstaff stays with his acquaintance Justice Shallow, a ridiculous old man from whom Falstaff hopes to “devise matter enough out of / this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter / the wearing out of six fashions, which is four terms, or / two actions, and ‘a shall laugh without intervallums” (Henry IV, Part Two, V:i:71-74). In the mean time, Henry IV has become gravely ill and is once again lamenting the depravity of his son, when he discovers that Hal is in London dining with Poins:

Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them; therefore my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death.
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary th’ unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
(Henry IV, Part Two, IV:iv:54-61.)

When Hal returns to the castle, he finds his father asleep, barely alive. He takes the crown from the pillow and leaves the room. Henry awakes, demands to have the crown brought back and finds that it was his own son who took it. He excoriates his son for wishing him dead. Hal convinces his father that he only took the crown to speak to it and “upbraided it: ‘The care on thee depending / Hath fed upon the body of my father …'” (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:v:159-60). He again speaks of his (still!) unrealized plan to reform: “The noble change that I have purposed!” (line 155). And he does this with sufficient pathos to convince the king who is now finally reconciled, content now to die.

We learn of Henry’s death in a scene involving the Lord Chief Justice (V:ii), who now fears for his own safety having once committed the prince, now king, to jail for riotous behavior. When the new king confronts him, the justice explains that he was acting on authority of the king (in loco parentis, I suppose) to deliver the rebuke that was due him. Hal, now Henry V, assures him that he did well and hoped that he would do the same to a wayward son of his own. Falstaff is still at Shallow’s when he learns of Henry’s death; he rushes to see Hal, believing that they will rejoice together in Hal’s new station. Instead, in the presence of his own train as well as Falstaff’s entourage, the new king rejects and banishes Falstaff in the most brutally abusive language:

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane,
But being awaked I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace …
(Henry IV, V:v:50-55.)

Stunned, Falstaff tries to explain it to his friends: “I shall be sent for in private to him …” (line 80) and “I shall be sent for / soon at night.” (lines 92-93.) Instead, the Lord Chief Justice has him taken away to the fleet prison, while Prince John remarks favorably on his brother’s “fair proceeding” with his “wonted followers.” Lest anyone improperly conclude that the King’s treatment was harsh, Shakespeare has the prince say that they will all be “very well provided for” and their banishment will last only “till their conversations / Appear more wise and modest to the world” (lines 102 & 103-104). But possibly Shakespeare still worried that this ending for Falstaff was not satisfactory and has a dancer give an epilogue, promising to bring back Falstaff in yet another play:

… If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you
merry with fair Katharine of France—where, for anything
I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already
‘a be killed with your hard opinions …
(Henry IV, Part Two, Epilogue, 25-30.)

Between 12 and 1

Hostess Quickly (Margaret Rutherford) remembers Falstaff: “‘a cried out, ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him ‘a should not think of God – I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.” (Henry V, II:iii:18-21.)

Despite the bantering about the audience’s “hard opinion” of Falstaff, this epilogue by a narrator standing in for the author suggests to me that Shakespeare himself was troubled by his ending to Falstaff and hoped to resolve it in the next play or at least to postpone finally resolving the business.

In that play (Henry V) Shakespeare gives King Henry the lines ordering Falstaff’s release, attributing the old man’s ill behavior during the king’s procession to “an excess of wine.” This allows us to soften our of opinion towards old Hal. But to bolster the case that the original treatment was justified, Shakespeare has this offer of clemency trigger a dissent from the king’s advisers, who urge that the punishment be continued “lest example / Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind” (Henry V, II:ii:45-46). As someone might say, Shakespeare seems to protest too much over the treatment. And probably he could not find a way out of the dynamics he had created, because Falstaff does not appear as promised by the dancer in the last play. Instead Falstaff receives something of a wake in the next scene with Hostess Quickly, Falstaff’s small page (played charmingly in the film by Welles’s daughter Beatrice), Pistol, Bardolph and Pym.  It is Mistress Quickly, despite her fights with Falstaff, who offers the only eulogy: “Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. ‘A made / a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom / child; ‘a parted e’en just between twelve and one, e’en / at the turning o’th’ tide / … / and ‘a babbled of green / fields” (Henry V, II:iii:9-17). Quickly and Pistol and others fill the comic role of left vacant by the death of Falstaff for the rest of the play.

There are very few modern commentators who defend Hal’s behavior towards Falstaff. Even those who reflexively defend Shakespeare’s treatments are at least defensive about Hal. Allan G. Chester, for example, in his preface to Henry IV, Part Two in the Pelican Shakespeare, says: “We need not condemn Hal too severely. Good judgment would have taught Falstaff that the laws of England would not be at his commandment after the death of the old king, and delicacy would have forbidden him to obtrude himself so abruptly into Hal’s new situation. … It is Falstaff, not the prince, who compels the rejection.” But does boorishness require imprisonment? And would not the laws of England, not to mention the example of the prudence of his own father (as the king expressly tells him in Henry IV, Part One, III:ii), be equally instructive to Hal against participating in a robbery, not to mention continuing in Falstaff’s company long after he had been repeatedly urged against it by the king? Even Poins, Hal’s “shadow,” tells him that the world would consider him a hypocrite if he were to weep over the illness of his father “because you have been so lewd, and so much / engraffed to Falstaff” (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:58-59).

Last time I mentioned Nuttall’s theory that Shakespeare patterned Hal after the Friend of the sonnets to whom we was (homosexually?) attracted as an explanation of why Hal troubles us and not the author. I left the analysis at that, but I should emphasize now that the theory is useful only in showing us that Hal’s behavior troubled even eminent literary critics, who usually act as if it were a professional obligation to reject all suggestions of unsuccessful dramatic conceptions by Shakespeare. But Nuttall’s explanation, based as it is on a predilection of the drama’s author inferred from a construction of another literary text, requires that we believe that in one case the narrator is speaking on behalf of Shakespeare relating his biography and in the other the character is modeled on the assumed features of the recipient (Shakespere’s real life “Friend”) of the other text. However dazzling one might think this analysis is as an example of academic virtuosity, at bottom it makes the twin mistakes of assuming that the narrator of a text (or a character in a literary drama) speaks the thoughts of the author and that the tidbits of biographical information concerning the author that we can mine from a text has some importance in evaluating another text. But beyond that, Nuttal’s conclusions, even if true and relevant, amount to nothing more than that Hal is simply a boorish jerk, of a kind that Shakespeare somehow liked, but a jerk nonetheless. But one need not have gone through the hoops Nuttal did if that is all one wanted to say about Hal’s character.

Traditional literary critics, therefore, being less than helpful on this issue, we might as well consult a field which brings a form of psychological insight into literary tests (albeit a field that is not much consulted these days for that purpose). And psychoanalysis is a field that routinely comments on literary productions and has a structure (whether you subscribe to it or not), which allows for discussion of behavior and what prompts it. To many the Freudian apparatus creaks with age and totters with odd ideological baggage, but it is the latter feature which allow us to talk about the subject. We cannot say there is an accepted “literary” way of looking at Hal’s conduct. But we can expect that there might be a psychoanalytical way, just as there might be a “Christian” or “historical” way to explain his behavior. After all, much of Freud’s theory depends on his view that literary archtypes illustrate certain mental phenomena, and Freud himself often analyzed literary characters and their authors solely on the basis of literary evidence. So let’s see what psychoanalysts have to say on the problem.

A Psychoanalysis of Prince Hal

Although Freud himself had much to say about certain of Shakespeare’s characters (particularly Hamlet and Lear), he has only fairly banal comments on the historical plays. This might seem odd, considering that the themes in those plays revolve around authority conferred by patrilineal descent, threats to the continuity of that authority, and the central feature, inherently creating a psychological division: the fact that the heir apparent can only realize the potential for which he spent his entire life preparing (kingship) through the death of his father. Monarchy of the English type also has the political necessity for male heirs and the strategic bonding through marriage, resulting in the trading of females for political purposes. These features all depend on a sexual differentiation, which necessarily affects all aspects of personal development and identity. The monarchy really ought to be a fertile soil for an approach to an understanding personality (such as Freud’s) which posits that most formative events take place within a family and involve sexual tensions and competition for affections.

“Falstaff is dead,” says his little Page (Beatrice Welles) sadly in the courtyard where his coffin lies.

Yet Freud limited himself to two comments about the Henry IV-V plays. First, he discussed Falstaff as an example of the humorous technique of “economized expenditure of effect” (Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious, §VIII). Falstaff’s size, harmlessness and the “lowness” of those he abuses prevents us from objecting to his gluttony, cowardice and deceit, says Freud. (The nature of humor must have changed much more between our time and Freud’s than from Freud’s to Shakespeare’s, or else I have been stricken with the cursed “political correctness” that they condemn these days for this explanation seems not only class-bound but also unconvincing.) He also notes that with respect to Falstaff himself his ego is “superior” so that his physical defects do not rob him of his psychic security.

Second, Freud mentions Hal in Interpretation of Dreams (Chapter VI) where he observes that when Hal puts on his father’s crown (thinking his father near death) he was acting out his (unconscious?) wish for his father’s death. “Whenever there is rank and promotion,” says Freud, “the way lies open for wishes that call for suppression.” Of course this is hardly a clever insight, for King Henry himself makes that very point (less prosaically) when he surprises Hal wearing the crown. Hals says: “I never thought to hear you speak again.” Henry replies: “Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.” (Henry IV, Part II: IV:v:92-93.) Indeed, isn’t the putting on the crown merely the stark culmination of Hal’s brooding over the course of the two plays (namely, that Hal’s behavior was a the punishment inflicted on him for taking the crown (and killing) Richard II)?

So we have Hal’s wish to toss aside his father. What about Falstaff? For that we have to figure out what Falstaff meant to Hal, and for that in turn we must go deeper into the mire of psychoanalysis than Freud did with either Hal or Falstaff.

There is a pair of father-son relations in Richard II and Henry IV, Part One, and all are named Henry. In Richard II, Henry IV begins as Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gault, the Duke of Lancaster (who happens to be uncle to the king, Richard II). Henry Percy (the father of Hotspur), the Earl of Northumberland, is an early supporter of Henry Bolingborke on the latter’s return from unjust banishment to fight the king for his rightful estates (taken by Richard II on the death of John of Gault to pay for his extravagance, we are told, and to defend against uprisings by the Welsh and Scots). Northumberland introduces his son, “Harry” Percy (known as Hotspur) to Henry, and Hotspur pledges allegiance to Henry. That play ends with Henry Bolingbroke becoming King Henry IV, and we know only little about his own son, Henry (Hal), now Prince of Wales and heir apparent, except that he spends his time “‘mongst the taverns” in London and that Henry has not seen him for three month (V:iii:1-12). 

Hotspur in some ways once saw both Henry and Northumberland as fathers in Richard II. But in Henry IV, Part One the new king refuses to ransom Hotspurs wife’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer from the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower, because Henry believed he had gone over to Glendower’s side. This constitutes in Hotspur’s mind Henry’s “rejection” of him, and under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, and his father Northumberland, Hotspur goes into revolt against Henry, in effect “rejecting” his adopted father.4 But it is Hotspur’s martial glories both before and after the revolt that causes Henry to prefer him over his natural son and heir, Hal. Despite his knowledge of his father’s displeasure, Hal for his part remains a companion of Falstaff, and even after Hal, as he promises his father, washes off his “bloody mask,” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:136-37), by killing Hotspur, he returns to Falstaff. Why?

The easy answer (the Psychoanalysis 101, or perhaps Psychoanalysis for Humanities Students, answer) is the “pleasure principle,” the prominent principle from Civilization and its Discontents. This force, which directs the id to seek physical gratification is buried by social forces so that everyone is able to bring himself to go to the office in order to work on spreadsheets in a cubicle rather than doing things that are more physically gratifying. This drive seldom is responsible for any socially unhealthy actions in normally maladjusted individuals (because it is so under the control of socially embedded rules) but can bubble up in dreams or even neurotic impulses. That Falstaff is the physical embodiment of the pleasure principle for Hal is hinted at when the new king says in his rejection speech that “I have long dreamed of such a kind of man [Falstaff, whom he addresses in the third person], / So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane, / But being awaked I do despise my dream.” (Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:52-54.) If you want to read ripe prose on what a carefree sprite Falstaff is (“… he is so happy and so entirely at ease. ‘Happy’ is too weak a word; he is in bliss, and we share in his glory. …”), you can read A.C. Bradley’s essay from the beginning of the last century (before modernism disturbed the complacency of Edwardian men of letters). But while Falstaff is not Peter Pan, the play has ample evidence that he partakes of Dionysian qualities. (Although probably due to commercial considerations and not with a view to mythological parallels, Shakespeare even resurrects Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor after killing him off in Henry V.) No social rules stand in the way of his gratification, and he led other to do likewise.

Parsifal heals King Amfortas (the German version of the Fisher King from Wolfram von Eschenbach (the source for Richard Wagner) Book illustration by Franz Stassen in Print Parsifal: A Mystical Drama by Richard Wagner. Retold in the Spirit of Bayreuth by Oliver Huckle (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1903).

Parsifal heals King Amfortas (the German version of the Fisher King from Wolfram von Eschenbach’a Parzival (the source for Richard Wagner’s opera). Book illustration by Franz Stassen in Parsifal: A Mystical Drama by Richard Wagner. Retold in the Spirit of Bayreuth by Oliver Huckle (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1903).

Norman Holland points out that Falstaff is the only major figure who is “whole” in the Henry IV plays. The other major characters are “dyads” (my word, not his): Hal/Hotspur; Worcester/Northumberland, Henry IV/Richard II, John of Lancaster/Hal and Shallow/Silence. Falstaff therefore is more “significant” than the “historical” characters. Indeed he rises to folk-mythological status. J.I.M. Stewart sees Falstaff as the Fisher King from the Arthurian/Parsifal traditions. (In the last post, I pointed out Falstaff’s own imaginative association with King Arthur.) The Fisher King receives a wound to his thigh/groin, which does not heal, causing infertility throughout the land. There are many medieval versions of the tale, and the attributes of his character are found in many figures. (A concise summary can be found in the “Fisher King” article by Matthew Annis at the University of Rochester’s Camelot Project.) In the Parzival version by Wolfram von Eschenbach (followed by Wagner in his opera) it is up to the hero to journey to Amfortas’s castle (where the Holy Gail is kept) to heal the king and restore fertility (spiritual and agricultural) to the land. As for the hints in Shakespeare, the most telling (to me) is after the “duel” between Pistol and Falstaff, Hostess asks: “Are you not hurt i’th’ groin? Methought ‘a made / a shrewd thrust at your belly (King Henry IV, Part 2 II:iv:205-06) (in Welles’s film Doll says the lines). The Fisher King’s association with seasonal fertility makes him one of the saturnalian figures of folk harvest/renewal festivals. Stewart writes that the description of Falstaff in the plays points to those cyclical festivals. Hal (playing his father) calls Falstaff a “roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:140-41) (referring to the Whitsun festival in Manningtree when an ox is roasted whole), and Poins describes him as Martlemas (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:96), meaning the salted beef served at Martinmas, a feast in November. He is also referred to as kinds of pork appropriate for feasts: “brawn” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:109) and Bartholomew boar pig (Henry IV, Part Two, II:iv:228-29). Perhaps the clinching evidence is that, like folk characters, Falstaff dies “at the turning o’th’ tide,” as Hostess Quickly makes a point of noting in her eulogy (Henry V, II:iii:13), like many a folk figure.

At such seasonal festivals there is a spirit of abandon presided over by a Saturnalian figure, a Lord of Misrule. (Falstaff shows himself to be Saturn to Hal’s Jupiter when he calls out to the new King: “My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!” Henry IV, Part Two: V:v:49.) During Saturnalia ordinary rules are suspended: Vice is Virtue. But with the end of the festivities the Lord of Misrule is killed (and so Falstaff is rejected by Hal). Norman Holland pointed out that Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego said that Saturnalia “derive from a temporary, therapeutic abrogation of the incorporated parental demand on the ego; they are lawful release from the superego.” So in this view Falstaff provides a replacement for Hal’s biological father. But why would Hal want to replace his father?

The only suggestion that seems to have any support in the plays revolves around Henry IV’s regicide of Richard II. We know that Henry IV himself worries himself over his guilt. That guilt is what blights the land with rebellion. (So it is Henry IV’s actions and not the wound to Falstaff’s groin that renders the land infertile.) This is how Ernest Kris explains Hal’s attachment to Falstaff: Because Henry IV is a regicide (and therefore a political parricide), Hal rejects his authority and must develop his own superego under the guidance of the substitute father Falstaff. We’ve seen that Hal in effect has two fathers and Philip Williams drives home the point by showing how Hal mistakes both of them as dead, and then robs them (of a crown from his father and the charges of the Hostess of Falstaff). When they actually die, they both die in the custom of folk figures: in Jerusalem for the king (Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:239) and with the tides for Falstaff. Is there any evidence in the plays that Hal was disturbed by his father’s regicide or that it (or to avoid a subconscious impulse toward parricide himself) motivated his rejection of his father and preference for Falstaff? If there is, I cannot find it. But the advantage of psychoanalytic criticism is that if you follow a long enough argument based on the “logic” of psychoanalytic theory, it is possible to fill in evidentiary holes by faith.

Hal as Henry upbraids Falstaff as Hal for not rejecting Falstaff foreshadows what is in store for Falstaff.

Hal as Henry upbraids Falstaff as Hal for not rejecting Falstaff foreshadows what is in store for Falstaff. Hal directs the royal wrath as Falstaff, but when Henry finally confronts Hal (the next day), it is Hal’s treatment of him, as his father, he laments.

So if we have followed this line thus far, the ending is easy enough. Once Hal’s father dies, Hal no longer is plagued by his father’s crime, he emerges as the rightful king and the substitute father is superfluous, and so he figuratively kills off Falstaff (who dies a little later from the figurative killing) as part of Hal’s transition from his pre-Oedipal stage.

There is one other aspect that seems to have escaped the psychoanalysts. The last we see of Falstaff (forever) is when he is being ordered off to jail by the Lord Chief Justice. That man had been commended by Henry V to act to any future wayward child of his to treat him the same way the justice treated Hal (i.e., as a wayward son would be treated by a parent). And so the justice treats Falstaff. Thus Falstaff’s regression has become complete. Starting off as the substitute father, he is rejected when he becomes unneeded and finally becomes the son, one in need of correction himself. Far from informing the superego of Hal when Hal’s own father was not capable of doing so, Falstaff will now receive the Law of the Father from Henry V.

We can thus see that Shakespeare wrote the perfect fin de siècle Vienna play, unmatched by any (except perhaps Hamlet).

But this is not the only (neo)Freudian explanation of Hal’s development. Valerie Traub argues that Falstaff is not Hal’s substitute father, but rather his substitute mother. The idea that Falstaff is a faux woman is not solely the province of Freudian feminists. W.H. Auden saw him as both a baby and a pregnant woman. He eats, Auden thought, to combine both aspects in order “to become completely self-sufficient emotionally.” Traub, however, does not see Falstaff’s shape as the result of an intention to become self-sufficient, but rather as the outward manifestation of his woman-ness (or non-man-ness), which carries with it, not comfort, but rather exclusion from the male (phallic-based) world. That world is the “serious” part of the drama. Take Hotspur, for example. His wife makes every effort to draw him into the world of healthy domestic sexuality. Hotspur, however, will have none of it. He is off to war because, as he says, the world he inhabits, that of rebellion and martial matters, is not a world for women (or sex): “This is no world / To play with mammets, and to tilt with lips. / We must have bloody noses, and cracked crowns …” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iii:94-96). He eludes her clutches and won’t even say he loves her until he is on his horse, so that he can escape her. It is significant (as we will see very shortly) that when Hal thinks of Hotspur and his relationship to his wife, he thinks of himself and Falstaff and says: “I prithee call in Falstaff. I’ll play Percy, and that / damned brawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife” (Henry IV, Part One, II: iv:107-08). And aside from Lady Mortimer, who has no speaking part (because she only speaks Welsh and Mortimer only English), the only other woman’s role in the first Henry play is Hostess Quickly, who is rendered genderless by Falstaff who calls her an otter, because “[s]he’s neither fish nor flesh, a man knows / not where to have her” (Henry IV, Part One, III:iii:125-26). In the second play Hotspur’s widow returns and has a small scene with her mother-in-law (both of whom persuade Northumberland not to fight (to act the woman?), causing him to again betray the rebels). The only other woman to appear is Doll Tearsheet, the prostitute, the agent of venereal disease (which is why Falstaff sends his “water” off to the doctor) and vessel for a fetus, who worries that she will miscarry when she is rounded up by the beadle (and the Hostess in fact prays that she does: Henry IV, Part Two, V:iv:12-13). It is a phallogocentric world (not to put too pretentious a point on it), where women are drags on the real business of men (killing), when they are not infecting them or carrying their issue.

Traub marshalls the evidence that Falstaff represents to Hal a woman. Much of it comes from Falstaff’s own mouth:

I do here
walk before thee like a sow that hath overwhelmed all
her litter but one. (Henry IV, Part Two, I:ii:10-12.)

I have a whole school of tongues in this belly
of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other
word but my name. …
my womb, my womb, my womb undoes me. (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:iii:18-22.)

Traub goes so far as to imply that Falstaff’s name can be seen as indicating a fake phallus (False-staff), but perhaps sometimes a name is just a name.

Falstaff and Hal in bed after Poins has picked Falstaff's pocket (and given the contents of Hal).

Falstaff and Hal in bed after Poins has picked Falstaff’s pocket (and given the contents to Hal).

If Falstaff plays the part of a woman, then perhaps Hal’s relationship with him is homoerotic. (Is this what Henry means when he calls his son a “young wanton, and effeminate boy”? (Richard II, V:iii:10.) If this is the nature of their relationship, Traub concludes: “Hal’s rejection of Falstaff serves simultaneously to temporarily assuage anxieties, first, about male homoeroticism and, second, about a heterosexuality based on the equation of woman and maternity. His repudiation of Falstaff exorcises both threats to Hal’s development of adult heterosexuality.” This is a plausible explanation of Hal’s character (at least if one accepts as a working hypothesis Freud’s concept of psychic development). But the physically grotesque appearance of Falstaff (supported by the language of the play) makes erotic attraction unlikely. And Traub has a different explanation that I think more completely explains both Hal’s attraction to Falstaff and its violent rejection—Hal’s emotions towards Falstaff are Oedipal.

This would mean that Falstaff’s body (as Auden points out) is maternal. And Traub points out how Medieval concepts of the maternal body (with all its various orifices constantly expelling things to the horror of men) is consistent with the physical description of Falstaff. Hal more than once rattles off numerous insults all amounting to seeing him as a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:439-40), like one with child and the organs that hold it. Moreover, Falstaff is constantly emitting or leaking substances: he is an “oily rascal” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:511), an “obscene, greasy tallow-catch” (line 224), who “sweats to death, / And lards the lean earth as he walks along” (Henry IV, Part One, II:ii:107-07). Even the dancer in the epilogue to Henry IV, Part Two promises the audience a continuation “where, for anything / I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat” (Epilogue 28-29). And it is not just oils and sweat that Falstaff excretes. Coming from the chamber pot, he interrupts his singing of Arthur to order “Empty the jordan” (Henry IV, Part TwoII.iv.33).

Child birth of course is the paradigmatic maternal function that historically has engendered the most disgust in males, taking place, as Freud delicately latinized it: inter urinas et faeces nascimur (a fact, he noted, that neurotics and many others took exception to). Perhaps it is the discontent of all civilization but George Barker expanded the disgust among modern Anglophones to all aspects of procreation. Here are stanzas from his “True Confession”:

The act of human procreation—
The sore dug plugging, the lugged out bub,
The small man priming a lactation,
The grunt, the drooping teat, the rub
Of gum and dug, the slobbing kiss:
Behold the mater amabilis,
Sow with a saviour, messiah and cow,
Virgin and piglet, son and sow:

The act of human procreation,—
O crown and flower, O culmination
Of perfect love throughout creation—
What can I compare it to?
O eternal butterflies in the belly,
O trembling of the heavenly jelly,
O miracle of birth! Really
We are excreted, like shit.

Hal describes to his father his promised rebirth—when he slays Hotspur—in similar terms with blood and gore as though rebirth like birth must be accompanied with all the excretions:

I will redeem all this on Percy’s head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son,
When I will wear a garment all of blood,
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it.
(Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:132-37.)

And when Hal in fact fulfills this promise, he sees that Falstaff is also down. If Shakespeare had only read his Neo-Freudians more carefully he probably would have ended the Hal-Falstaff relationship here, where Hal’s rebirth, his “breeching” (the stage in Medieval son-rearing where the boy puts on pants and leaves the company of women caregivers) and resolution of his Oedipal drive take place all at once. But Shakespeare did not end it there; Falstaff had been feigning death, Hal’s father does not see the shame removed from Hal, and there is another play to be got through where Hal returns to the taverns of London and Falstaff. It is only at the end of the second play that Hal rejects Falstaff. Perhaps the violence of the rejection has something to do with how belated it was under this theory, involving a near completion followed by backsliding. As it was, it took place only after Hal’s father had died and Hal took up yet another father figure, the Lord Chief Justice.  So the rejection does not tie up all the Freudian threads we have been weaving, and maybe they are irrelevant, because Shakespeare was writing a comic-drama, not a case study, and for him the play was the thing, not the couch.

Welles ignores Freud and takes Medieval politics seriously

Hours before he died before a typewrite in his hotel room on October 10, 1985, Orson Welles taped this interview on the Merv Griffin Show. It aired Monday, October 15, 1985.

Hours before he died before a typewriter in his hotel room on October 10, 1985, Orson Welles taped this interview on the Merv Griffin Show. It aired Monday, October 15, 1985.

Orson Welles was an open book to the public. He loved giving the kind of interviews that let the public see deep inside him. It didn’t matter who the interviewer was, whether a serious student of French cinema or a network entertainment talk show host. And while Welles was more than happy to let audiences into his world, he made much of it up out of whole cloth (or exaggerated real events beyond recognition). During his many interviews his contradictions (of himself, on his opinions of others, his own and others’ contributions to his projects, his intentions and even basic factual matters) became so numerous that one hardly knows what to believe. He was not shy about divulging personal details, depending on the circumstances and the effect he was trying to achieve. But as he was always spinning the mythology of Orson Welles, the content of that mythology and the lessons he drew from it changed over time. He could be perfectly demure (as on middle- and low- brow television talk shows like The Dean Martin ShowThe Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show) and at other times crude, vulgar and slanderous (see his conversations with Henry Jaglom). Although his life was filled with stuff that psychoanalysts could prattle on about (and amateurs did), and although his films echoed (sometimes starkly) things in his life, Welles never offered psychological explanations for his characters or his films, at least not Freudian ones, especially of Shakespearean characters. (His discussions of the motivations of Othello and Lear in his Bogdanovich interviews is entirely uninformed by any Freudian approach: He says that the shortcomings of both men arise from their inexperience with the ways of women. In all of Welles’s films the one exception, one that he even hinted had a Freudian explanation, was Citizen Kane.) He also denied that his films were intended to have autobiographical themes. I think we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt on that and therefore set aside Nuttal’s example (and the approach of many Welles’s critics) and not try to interpret the movie based on some understanding of his biography.

More reliable than Welles’s views of himself or others’ analysis of his psycho-biography are Welles’s own views on how Shakespeare ought to be presented. Shakespeare is possibly the one passion of Welles that lasted a lifetime. From a boy he produced Shakespeare plays at the progressive Todd School at a time when Shakespeare was usually absent from American secondary education. Partly to rectify that after graduation, Welles together with the head of Todd School edited a number of Shakespeare plays with commentary, set illustrations and production suggestions for high schools. When he was 16 Welles performed Hamlet’s father at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. At 18 he toured the country with a Broadway company performing the role of Mercutio. He produced three Elizabethan plays in New York by the time he was 23 and had an out-of-town preview tour of the Henry IV-V plays (which closed before reaching New York). Before Chimes at Midnight he had filmed two other Shakespeare plays, performed in another and had produced and played Falstaff in a Dublin stage version of Chimes at Midnight. In short, Welles was as serious a person in Shakespearean stage and film as anyone not permanently associated with a repertory or national theater company. So his opinions in how Shakespeare should be approached (generally and specifically with respect to specific plays, characters or scenes) ought to be accorded some weight. Indeed, John Gieguld (who had played Hotspur to Ralph Richardson’s Prince Hal in a production at the Old Vic in 1930) said that in his experience Welles had “extremely perceptive appreciation of the Shakespeare text.”

According to interviews late in his life, two principles guided his general approach. First, according to his 1974 interview with Richard Marienstras (who occasionally sounds dubious of Welles’s answers), Welles believed that stage productions ought to respect the theatrical traditions and avoid experimentation. (He was forced to admit that his own Julius Caesar violated that principle, but he claimed that world political exigencies required that an anti-fascist cast be put on the production.) Second, as he told Bogdanovich (and others), he believed that film, being an independent art form, did not need to strictly follow Shakespeare’s “intentions.”

I don’t see why there’s an argument about it. A movie is a movie, and if we are going to take movies as a serious art form, then they’re no less so than opera. And Verdi had no hesitation in doing what he did with his Otello, which is an enormous departure from the play; nobody criticizes him. Why is a movie supposed to be more respectful to play than an opera?

But in both theatrical and film versions Welles always only used Shakespeare’s words (or very occasionally paraphrases) except for the narration in Chimes at Midnight, which all comes from Holinshed (Shakespeare’s own source). Welles believed that he was free to abridge (in fact required to, given attention constraints of modern audiences) and occasionally he distributed lines from one character to another. In Chimes at Midnight he significantly re-arranged scenes and sequences (and drastically cut the story that did not involve Falstaff). But he always contended that he remained true to the characters as drawn by Shakespeare and delivered the perspective Shakespeare intended (despite the fact, as Mareinstras pointed out, that by cutting he was “changing the general balance of the play”).

With respect to Chimes at Midnight specifically, Welles strays from the accepted Shakespearean interpretation (whatever Shakespeare’s intent was) in one aspect, his characterization of Falstaff, while remaining consistent with Shakespeare’s intent with respect to the political-court aspect of the story, which though much abridged, provides the framework of the drama, even that part involving only Falstaff and his associates. But because the political aspect provides the overall context of the tale, Welles is able to fold his characterization of Falstaff into the overall political world in a way that produces a perspective that may or may not represent Shakespeare’s ideas, but resolves the “Prince Hal Problem” better than commentators and psychoanalysts do, by condensing the tale so that we follow a more logical story arc and characterization of Hal. In the end, I submit that the surgery Welles performs on the plays results in a story that is much more satisfying dramatically, politically and psychologically, at least to the modern audience, and by taking that approach his characterization of Falstaff is entirely justified. Let’s take the treatment of Falstaff first.

Welles early fell in love with the character, probably around the time he produced Five Kings in 1939. The press reports (particularly from Boston) say that he played Falstaff with much more pathos, and less bawdy humor, than the reviewers had seen before. Over the years this role must have percolated in him (especially given the failure of the Five Kings production) until he converted Falstaff from the buffoon that nineteenth century stage producters regarded him into something of a holy fool (like Prince Myshkin or Quixote), although Welles equivocated on just how “good” Falstaff was, depending on when he talked about him. Here’s what he said to Marienstras:

I think that Falstaff is the only great imaginary character who is truly good. His faults are so minor. No one is perfect, and he’s filled with imperfections, physical and moral defects, but the essential part of his nature is his goodness. That’s the theme of all the plays he appears in.

He described Falstaff to Tynan not as Christ-like (which Auden had suggested) but rather like “a Christmas tree decorated with vices. The tree is total innocence and love.” Welles told Bogdanovich that “his goodness is basic—like bread, like wine.” Back in 1947 Welles wrote in the New York Post (quoted in the Bogdanovich interviews) that Shakespeare was “a sociable sort who liked to trade gags with the boys at the Mermaid” and that he “surely wished that Hamlet could have joined him for a drink after the show. I think Falstaff is Hamlet—an old and wicked Hamlet—having that drink.” Three and a half decades later he told Megahey that Falstaff could not have been the Hamlet that stayed in England rather than return to Denmark, because “Hamlet is not a good man … .” We can gather from all this that Welles over time laid greater and greater emphasis on the “goodness” of Falstaff and minimized the faults of the character.

But Shakespeare shows none of the infatuation with Falstaff that Welles does. The insults hurled at him by Hal and Poins are designed not to elicit audience sympathy for Falstaff but rather to have them laugh at him (and give the actor an opportunity to exaggerate those features by playing the buffoon). Falstaff also does nothing to show “goodness” to anyone (if by “goodness” is meant something like charity or benevolence). He had enemies (like Poins) and treated his retainers shabbily (Bardolph, reminded, after Falstaff’s death, of a joke Falstaff made at his expense, replied: “Well, the fuel is gone that maintained that / fire—that’s all the riches I got in his service” (Henry V, II:iii:40-41)). He insulted Hostess to whom he owed money in a way we would now consider vile. He stole from the funds used to recruit soldiers and his drafting of soldiers was influenced by bribes. He committed armed robbery against religious pilgrims, and repeatedly lied, including by taking credit before the king of killing Hotspur. Right before his own end (when he confronted his own mortality) he even mused, with some regret, on the shortcomings of old men who had the habit of lying.

The best that can be said for Falstaff is that he was ingenuous or guileless, which, perhaps, makes him virtuous enough, inasmuch as both are rare enough qualities. Or maybe the more accurate description is that he acted better than could be expected under his circumstances. Isn’t that what Welles is really saying when he says that Falstaff never expected anyone to believe his lies? And the point of his statement to Bogdanovich: “All the roguery and the tavern wit and the liar and bluff is simply a turn of his—it’s a little song he sings for his supper. It isn’t really what he’s about”? If put that way, perhaps it does express how Shakespeare felt. Falstaff was more sinned against than sinning. And the abuse that the rabble in the Globe heaped on him was just more of the circumstances he overcame, until it became too much even for Falstaff—Shakespeare couldn’t bring himself to put Falstaff in Henry V.

Whatever Welles’s conception of Falstaff, his realization does not make the movie markedly different from the play. In fact, it only informs his acting. The tragedy of Falstaff does not depend on his being good or innocent or deserving. His tragedy is that he conceived that he deserved more than his circumstances allowed. It is that sin that Shakespeare’s Tudor audience could not forgive. It was why they found it riotously funny that he might “die of a sweat.” Welles exaggerated the “goodness” of Falstaff in order avoid portraying Falstaff in a way that we no longer can accept. The twentieth century has taught us too much to laugh at fools who are stripped of dignity they do not deserve, because we have seen how easy it is to strip anyone of their fundamental dignity, and it is not a matter for humor, and deep down we are doubtful that any of us have any dignity at all.

It is on the second point, the politics of Shakespeare’s plays, that Welles is perfectly aligned with Shakespeare’s thinking. He told Marienstras: “The idea that there is something essentially corrupt on the political confrontations of the court pervades his whole oeuvre.” But the king himself, as the embodiment of sovereignty, was outside accountable corruption. “The idea that the crown was sacred, that around the crown corruption reigned but that the crown itself, whoever wore it, was a sort of Holy Grail—for Shakespeare, this idea was very real.”

The concept that the king could legally do no wrong (at least nothing that should cause a forfeiture of the crown by rebellion), by definition, was a maxim of Medieval monarchy. It was what Richard II believed protected him de jure from lawful revolt and de facto meant God would defend him from his enemies. This was why Richard II was so confident in the face of the threat of Henry: “The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord.” (Richard II, III:ii:56-57). This ancient principle was so ingrained that it applied even to a usurper who had overthrown a legitimate king. That is why the Duke of York, who counseled Henry against his revolt, tried to turn over his son Aumerle to Henry (once Richard was deposed) when he discovered that his son had plotted to take down Henry and restore Richard (Richard III, V:ii).

By the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s day that notion of the king above the law had frayed beyond recognition, and the concept of legitimacy was central to sovereignty. The Tudor dynasty (which replaced the House of York, which itself was a rival to the claims of the House of Lancaster founded by Henry IV) hardly had the best claim to legitimacy. Henry VI had usurped the throne. Henry VIII had abrogated the church’s authority, and his heirs had resorted to bloody means to obtain their thrones. Shakespeare witnessed real challenges to Elizabeth, who in any event was childless, and succession was the chief matter of political concern by the end of the sixteenth century. There was even a plot against her, which relied on historical  and literary references to Henry IV’s deposition of Richard II, a circumstance that caused Elizabeth, when she reviewed the documents of the plotters, to say: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” (I will not here delve into Elizabethan politics, deferring that to a later post.) Shakespeare himself uses the usurpation by Henry as a dividing line between the days when kings believed in their divine right and those that worried about legitimacy. Richard on one half the divide assures himself:

For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel. Then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.
(Richard II, III:ii:58-62.)

By contrast Henry broods through both plays over his right to rule. He sees the rebellions (as predicted by Richard) as a consequence of the way he gained the throne.

There were practical reasons why the legitimacy of the crown could not be questioned. Anything less than absolute sovereignty in the crown demanding total allegiance might easily lead to civil war, the gravest plight on the land and one that invited even further disaster—foreign invasion. Given that Elizabeth was childless, the political issue of succession must have been on many minds at the time the plays were first performed. Legitimacy plagues Henry IV throughout the plays because he has none according to traditional notions but somehow hopes he can pass it on, if only he can retain the crown against those grasping for it. What further troubles him is his son’s behavior and he worries that Hal’s misconduct might be related to his own lack of legitimacy, as “the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven” to punish him for his past “mistreadings” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:8-13). It is why sleep eludes him even to the end.

Without legitimacy he must use his own wits to defend the throne. And it is here that occurs what Hugh Grady calls the “Machiavelli moment.” In this respect as well I will defer delving into his particular take on this, which is convoluted (one would think from his analysis that Shakespeare wrote plays and poetry only because Venn diagrams had not yet been invented) and steeped in turgid academic prose. But what Grady points to is obvious from much of Shakespeare’s political dramas. A stereotypical view of Machiaelli’s thought (in crudest form; namely, that the prince is justified in doing whatever is necessary to remain in power) can be found throughout the works. E.g.: “policy sits above conscience” (Timon of Athens, III:ii:89). “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devised at first to keep the strong in awe. / Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!” (Richard III, V:iii:310-12). In the two Henry IV plays, however, we see Shakespeare first working out the implications.

It is uncertain whether Shakespeare read The Prince. Since it was not translated into English until 1640, if he did read it, it would have had to have been a French or Latin translation. If he did not read The Prince, he may have encountered him through a French pamphlet which grossly caricatured Machiavelli’s writings and slandered his person. Or he could have encountered the concepts of Machiavelli from Marlowe in Tamerlane (1577-78) or The Jew of Malta (1589), in which Machiavel is the Prologue speaker. But even if he had been ignorant of all the foregoing, Shakespeare would undoubtedly encountered talk of the concepts at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside or wherever else Shakespeare drank. After all, the techniques themselves were not innovative; Machiavelli’s genius was in cataloging them, and showing how a treacherous prince best used them (like the first modern business leadership book, which in fact it was). By 1540 Cardinal Pole had said that the ides of Machiavelli had already poisoned England and would soon do likewise to all Christendom (although Pole perhaps was referring to Machiavelli’s writing on democracy and republicanism, which Machiavelli preferred, than his writing on treacherous court politics, which Pole himself was an adept).5

The Henry IV plays (and later Henry V) are strikingly reminiscent of advice from The Prince. When Henry first confronts his son, he lectures him on how he had maintained the throne, and his advice seems to come from Chapter XVIII of The Prince (In What Way Princes Must Keep the Faith), namely that a prince, even if he did not possess appealing virtues, should pretend to have them by clothing himself in them:  “I stole all courtesy from heaven, / And dressed myself in such humility / That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:50-52). By contrast, like the “skipping king,” Richard II, Hal had been mingling “his royalty with cap’ring fools . . .” and “Enfeoff’d himself to popularity,” (lines 63 & 69), behavior which diminishes authority. Moreover, in the “latest counsel / that ever I shall breathe” Henry warns Hal that despite all the “peril I have answered” to make Hal’s reign “a more fairer sort,” dangers still lurk. So Hal must make Henry’s friends, “their stings and teeth newly ta’en out,” Hal’s own (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:v:182-83, 186, 200, 205). As for policy, Henry recommends foreign war: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out / May waste the memory of the former days” (lines 213-15). What could be more platitudinously Machievellian than foreign war to manipulate domestic authoritiy? It certainly did wonders for the popularity of Presidents Bush (père and fils). And it appears strikingly similar to the technique described in Chapter XXI of The Prince (How a Prince Should Act in Order to Gain Reputation). But the plays’ most treacherous use of an ends-justify-the-means act (which is the common, though not altogether accurate, understanding of “machiavellian”) is by Prince John of Lancaster, the son Henry is most proud of. In the second Henry IV play, having sent an emissary to the rebels before battle to seek their terms, in IV:ii Prince John arrives and appears to agree on everything with Mowbry and the Archbishop. When the rebel leaders then disband their army, Prince John has them arrested and sends them to their execution. That feat of bad faith, which even shocks us in this time of targeted assassination, torture, unlimited drone strikes, terrorist attacks, apparent immunity for homicide by police offices, not to mention massive secret government surveillance, goes beyond anything found in Chapter XVII (Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether it is Better to be Loved or Feared).

Welles recognized this machiavellian undertow in the court. He told Marienstras that Shakespeare “couldn’t do otherwise” than to justify Prince Hal “in all sorts of ways” because Hal was “an official patriotic hero.” But he maintained that Shakespeare portrays Hal ambiguously. This answer deserves full quotation:

[Hal] loves Falstaff, but he prepares a betrayal necessary from a Machiavellian point of view. I’m speaking of the Machiavellianism, that of the real Machiavelli that we know and who is so far superior to the one Shakespeare judged to be so sly. Hal is certainly a great Machiavellian prince. He loves Falstaff, and, still, is ready to betray him from the get-go.

It is the “love/necessity” dichotomy that drives the film in a way that it does not drive the plays. Where does this “necessity” come from? As Welles puts it: “How could he have forced the respect of the English court and the people if he had kept vulgar acolytes as his play-mates?” And yet Welles sees “this kind of betrayal is still an infamy, even if it’s a Machiavellian necessity.”

Maybe I can push this point a bit further in analyzing the film. Certainly by the end, Prince Hal/King Henry V has become the “that terrible creature, a great man of power” as Welles described him to Bogdanovich. And Hal had the kernel of that in him from the start when he “has a beady Welsh eye on future dignity and glory.” And certainly Welles directs him according to that conception: “Here is a complicated young man with a curious, rather spooky internal coldness. And there’s also the charm, the comradely joie de vivre—all part of his vocation, the basic equipment of Machiavelli’s perfect prince.” But what makes the drive and the ultimate infamy logical is that first, Hal knows what he must do when he becomes the “perfect prince” and yet evidently abhors what he will become. If we follow the story beyond where the film ends we find that Henry V will execute not only the conspirators against him but also the foot soldiers he made prisoners who followed them. He will then lay siege (in effect) on Katherine in as inept a suit as you are likely to witness. The only way he “wins” her is because she is already his prisoner. Official patriotic hero or not, he becomes something that we moderns cannot like.

Falstaff watches Hal rejoin the army after Shrewsbury just as Hal drops his cup of sack.

Falstaff watches Hal rejoin the army after Shrewsbury just as Hal drops his cup of sack.

Welles is able to dramatically show the transformation from the fun-loving, comradely friend of the guileless Falstaff to that terrible creature by drastically cutting the Henry IV plays and rearranging the sequences. He makes the battle of Shrewsbury the turning point in Hal’s view of himself—the point where Hal has reluctantly decided that he must now change. Welles then cuts out all the “backsliding” on this resolution that Shakespeare’s Falstaff scenes in Henry IV, Part Two constitute and which disrupts this story arc. And while Hal gives hints even before Shrewsbury what the “necessity” will cause him to do, Welles portrays him as genuinely affectionate towards Falstaff and reluctant to truly harm him (by, among other things, drastically cutting the most vicious “gag lines” Shakespeare has him direct at Falstaff and by the way he has Hal protect Falstaff from the sheriff’s men). All of that takes place before Shrewsbury. In the scene after the battle, however, Falstaff celebrates the virtues of wine, which all take including Hal. But we see the resolution forming in Hal’s face, and he turns, leaves Falstaff and drops the cup of sack on his way to rejoin the army. Falstaff’s smile disappears; the metamorphosis has begun. By cutting scenes inconsistent with that change from the film, Welles remains faithful to the story arc as he conceives it.

In the scene with Poins that shortly follows, Hal broods over his situation. He despises himself for his desire for “small beer” and wonders what the world would think of him if he weeped over his father’s imminent death. Poins tries to advise him like an equal, but Hal cuts him off and insults him, mindful of his imminent “glory.” Sensing the change, Poins retreats, signifying his subordination: “Go to, I stand the push of your one thing that you / will tell (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:35-36). And yet Hal is still able to treat the young page he gave Falstaff kindly and promises to visit his master. The last scene that Hal and Falstaff have together, before the rejection, is one of unstated regret and nostalgia. When Hal is gone, Falstaff becomes old and thinks of his mortality. After a parting that breaks Doll’s heart, Falstaff leaves to visit Shallow, who, an old man himself, is filled with thoughts of his associates who are are now “dead, dead …” Falstaff sees himself in the vanity of Shallow, but tries not to accept what has happened between himself and Hal. In the same scene when he learns Henry has died and his friend is now king, he comes alive, convincing himself there is something to live for. He assures all around that he will take care of them.

We last see Falstaff as he disappeares under arches having half-heartedly assured himself that “I shall be sent for soon.” Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:92-93).

The rejection comes soon after. It is brutal and humiliating. It strikes deep within us watching it. Welles’s portrayal of Falstaff is one of memorable impact. He shows surprise, horror and devastation all at once without speaking and barely moving. When he leaves the procession, he is hounded by Shallow, who now is only interested in recovering as much of the money he loaned Falstaff as possible. Falstaff wanders slowly off, to disappear among columns (which reminded me of the mirror scene at the end of Kane—a death march of sorts), and assures Shallow in a tired and unconvincing voice, “Sir, I will be as good as my word. This that / you heard was but a colour.” Shallow replies prophetically, “A colour that I fear you will die in, Sir John” (Henry V, V:v:89-90). The sad self-deception, rendered as if by rote, that Falstaff will be as good as his word is shortly exceeded by Ralph Richardson’s epilogue over the lonely funeral procession for Falstaff as the words of Holinshed about Henry V are recited, including that he left “… no friendship unrewarded …” All encomiums are lies.

As we see the lonely end of Falstaff we fully understand the “terrible creature” Hal has become, for we have seen him enter the castle that Henry left, with its stone floors, empty walls and dark corners, filled by no friends or family, only courtiers whom he must police and military with pikes who serve as the “knife in hand” a prince must have (see The Prince, Chapter VIII). Then we see that Henry is setting off to engage in the war in France just as his father had advised.  The two, the new king and the old knight, were bound to part, because what Hal must become is so repellant to what Falstaff always was.

All that is left after the battle: legs which struggled in the mud with the last twitches of men trying to survive are now still.

This is the way the world ends: All that is left after the battle: legs which struggled in the mud with the last twitches of men trying to survive are now still.

That Shrewsbury was the turning point is quite logical, especially as Welles depicted the battle. It is a brutal, unglamorous slaughter where men confront each other face-to-face with barbaric arms that hack and pound and tear. In the end there is nothing but body parts slowly dying, making sucking noises in the mud. It is, as Welles intended, a modern war. It is the inevitable result of the modern state, the state guided by “policy,” using the techniques Machiavelli catalogued.

Vincent Canby, as he usually did, was able to hone in on the essence of Welles’s achievement:

Chimes at Midnight carries an astonishing emotional kick that seems to grow each time I see it. Shakespeare really isn’t supposed to be so moving in this day and age. Yet this film has a way of creeping up on you … Shakespeare doesn’t get much better than that. Nor does Welles.”

Perhaps the film is not really Shakespeare in some “authentic” sense. But it really is the only way I have seen to solve the Prince Hal problem, and it is a stunning emotional rendering of plays that are described as merely “historical.” (The distant past as present, and both as nightmare.) The conclusion one reaches on seeing the film again is that this is the way we must view the events, even if it was not how they wanted to see them a couple of centuries ago by those who had, fortunately for them, not become as “modern” as we have. In some ways as they used to say, the personal is political. (That phrase was current in the days when the struggle was to liberate the political from antiquated, and in some ways Freudian, concepts.) What Welles seems to be saying is that the political overwhelms the personal, because the state has become so efficient and rational, perfecting Machiavelli’s Renaissance findings. As a result, now Falstaff must be a tragedy, not a comedy, because “Jesu, the days we have seen.”

Notes

1Incidentally, Jacques Ibert wrote the music for René Clair’s 1928 film of the French farce The Horse Ate the Hat, a theatrical performance of which Welles produced for the Federal Theatre Project in 1936. [Return to text.]

2Rosemary Gaby’s modernized version of this passage is as follows:

Thus were the father and the son reconciled, betwixt whom the said pickthanks had sewn division, insomuch that the son, upon a vehement conceit of unkindness sprung in the father, was in the way to be worn out of favor. Which was the more likely to come to pass, by their informations that privily charged him with riot and other uncivil demeanor unseemly for a prince. Indeed, he was youthfully given, grown to audacity, and had chosen him companions agreeable to his age with whom he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and delights as he fancied. But yet (it should seem by the report of some writers) that his behavior was not offensive or at least tending to the damage of anybody, since he had a care to avoid doing of wrong, and to tender his affections within the tract of virtue, whereby he opened unto himself a ready passage of good liking among the prudent sort, and was beloved of such as could discern his disposition, which was in no degree so excessive, as that he deserved in such vehement manner to be suspected. In whose dispraise I find little, but to his praise very much, parcel whereof I will deliver by the way as a metyard whereby the residue may be measured. [Return to text.]

3One example of this concerns Henry IV. In Richard II, Richard prophesied that Northumberland, having betrayed him to Henry would soon betray Henry (V:i:55-68). Henry IV later reminds Warwick of the prophecy given at a time when the king says “God knows” he (Henry) had no intention to ascend to the throne at the time (Henry IV, Part Two, III:i:62-75). The problem is that the prophecy of Richard (a scene of Shakespeare’s invention) took place after Henry had ascended his throne (Richard was on his way to the Tower of London when he makes the prophecy) and neither Richard nor Warwick was present when the scene took place. [Return to text.]

4Both Shakespeare and Holinshed are confused on the issue of Edmund Mortimer. While it was true that the brother-in-law of Hotspur’s wife married the daughter of Welsh rebel Owen Glendower (in Welsh, Owain Glyndŵr), it was his nephew, also named Edmund Mortimer, who was the Earl of March and whose pretension to the throne the Percys supported in their revolt against Henry. [Return to text.]

5Although Machiavelli was not published in English until 1640, long after Shakespeare’s death, it was published in French in 1553, in Latin in 1560 and in Italian in 1594. (See De Pol, in Citations, below.) There were several manuscript translations of other Machiavelli works at Cambridge. Arte della Guearra had been translated into English in 1570 and others later. See Weissberger, below, who also discusses Gentillet, the French pamphleteer who depicted Machiavelli as a murderer, and whose Contre-Machiavel had been translated into English in 1577. As for Marlowe, who had attended Corpus Christi College, where interest in Machiavelli first showed itself, see Bawcutt, below. For the quotation from Cardinal Pole (in a letter from John Leghe to Henry VIII’s Privy Council) see Weissberger. [Return to text.]

Citations

Tracy Alexander, “A Note on Falstaff,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly Vol. II (1944),  pp. 592-606.

W.H. Auden, “The Prince’s Dog,” The Dyer’s Hand (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 182-208.

George Barker, The True Confession of George Barker (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965).

N.W. Bawcutt, “Machiavelli and Marlowe’s ‘the Jew of Malta,'” Renaissance Drama, New Series, Vol. 3 (1970), pp. 3-49.

Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles, This is Orson Welles (ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum) (New York: HarperCollins, c1992).

A.C. Bradley, “The Rejection of Falstaff,” Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1909), pp. 247-273.

Vincent Canby, “‘Chimes at Midnight,’ Welles’s Own Shakespeare,” New York Times, June 19, 1992, p. C15.

Allan G. Chester, “Introduction to the Second Part of King Henry the Fourth,” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works; The Pelican Texts Revised ed. by Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, Md: Penguin Books, c1969), pp. 703-05.

T.P. Courtenay, “Shakespeare’s Historical Plays Considered Historically—No. IV,” The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 54, Part 3, p. 42 (1838).

Peter Cowie, Ribbon of Dreams: The Cinema of Orson Welles (South Brunswick, N.J.: A.S. Barnes, 1973).

Roberto De Pol (ed.), The First Translations of Machiavelli’s Prince: From the Sixteenth to the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2010).

David Ellis, Shakespeare’s Practical Jokes: An Introduction to the Comic in his Work (Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press, c2007).

Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Strutures in Shakespeare’s Drama (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1985).

Mark W. Estrin, Orson Welles: Interviews (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, c 2002), including

Interview by Kenneth Tynan, originally in Playboy (March 1967);

Interview by Richard Marienstra, from French television series in December 1974, published in Positif (July-August 1998).

Interview by Leslie Magehy, from an interview filmed in Las Vegas in 1982 for the BBC program The Orson Welles Story, which aired in May 1983.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams trans. by James Strachey and Anna Freud with Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, [1953]) [from the complete works of Freud 1901-02].

Sigmund Freud, The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious trans. by Joyce Crick (London: Penguin, 2002) [original German publication in 1905].

Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (n.p.: Boni and Liveright, 1920).

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents trans. by James Strachey (New York: Norton, 2005) [original German publication in 1929].

John Gielgud (with John Miller), Acting Shakespeare (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1991).

Hugh Grady, “Shakespeare’s Links ot Machiavelli and Montaigne: Constructing Intellectual Modernity in Early Modern Europe,” Comparative Literature, Vol.  (Spring, 2000), pp. 119-142.

Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet (Oxford: Oxford Universikty Press, c2002).

Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2004).

Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., c1964).

Ernest Kris, “Prince Hal’s Conflict” (1948), collected in Ernest Krist, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: International University Press, 1952). pp. 273-88.

Henry Jaglom, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles edited by Peter Biskind (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt Books, 2013).

Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965).

J.I.M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined (London: Longmans, Green, 1949).

Valerie Traub, “Prince Hal’s Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 40 (Winter 1989), pp. 456-474.

Kathleen Tynan (ed.), Letters of Kenneth Tynan (New York: Random House, 1998).

L. Arnold Weissberger, “Machiavelli and Tudor England,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 42 (December 1927), pp. 589-607.

Philip Williams, “The Birth and Death of Falstaff Reconsidered, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. VIII (1957), pp. 359-65.

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Chimes at Midnight

The Final Masterpiece of Orson Welles Can Be Seen Again

Chimes at Midnight Poster

Poster accompanying 1967 release of Chimes at Midnight. As usual, US distribution policies worked at cross-purposes with Welles’s vision for his work.

It is likely that if you, like me, did not see Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’s tribute to Jack Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s great comic-tragic characters, when it was released in the United States in March 1967, you would not have ever seen it in a cinema, since it has been tied up in litigation between its Spanish producers and the Welles estate ever since. Fortunately the film has been re-released and is showing until January 12 at Manhattan’s Film Forum, and thereafter will make its way through art houses around the country.

[Update 1/12/16: The New York Film Forum has announced that the film will be held over for another week. There will be five showings daily through January 19.]

In 1967 I would not have been prepared to appreciate the film, even if I had lived in a place where the film was shown. Since then having seen all of the rest of Welles’ output, I can now put it in perspective. By the time Welles made Chimes at Midnight, he had made at least five or six of the very few films that belong among the classics of world cinema: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Othello (1948), Touch of Evil  (1958) and The Trial (1962). Of these films, only three escaped the ravages of the Hollywood. Kane was a fluke. RKO Pictures so lusted after the head of New York’s Mercury Theatre, that they caved to the demands of Welles when he demurred. Because Welles sought artistic control rather than more money, RKO agreed and allowed Welles to make a masterpiece. When it was finished RKO realized that William Randolph Hearst would use his might to squelch the film and maybe the studio itself, and RKO cowered before might of the Hearst newspaper chain and limited Kane‘s distribution. Studios would not make the mistake of giving directors artistic freedom again, and The Magnificent Andersonand Touch of Evil were mutilated, one to make a point, the second out of sheer vulgarity. The other two of Welles’s masterpieces, Othello and The Trial, avoided the problem by avoiding the studio system altogether, although Othello suffered from such lack of ready money that it took years to complete, requiring Welles to employ imaginative shots to cover for actors who missed the one or more of infrequent shootings.

Chimes Publicity Shot

“As fat as butter” (Carrier describing Falstaff, Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:496). Welles in publicity still. (Peppercorn-Wormser Film Enterprises: Photo: Mary Evans/Alpine Films.)

Welles was able to obtain Spanish financing for Chimes at Midnight, if Bob Mandello has it right, by use of deception. He lied to the Spanish producers promising that he would develop a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. He had no intention to do so and instead filmed Shakespeare’s version of the origin of the Lancaster House, by focusing on Falstaff. Filmed mostly in castles in Spain, Welles operated with an economy that even the most impoverished of independents today would find chafing. It is a tribute to the esteem in which Welles was held by actors that he was able to assemble an international cast of stars: Sir  John Gielgud played Henry IV, Keith Baxter was used to play Hal (later Henry V) as he did in Welles’ 1960 stage version of the Chronicle plays, Jeanne Moreau acted the part of Doll Tearsheet, Margaret Rutherford played the matronly keeper of the bawdy inn Mistress Quickly and Fernando Rey, not long after his role in Viridiana, played the cool conspirator Earl of Worcester, head of the Percy rebellion against Henry. Repertory actors Alan Webb played Shallow, Norman Rodway was Hotspur, Tony Beckley played Ned Poins and Michael Aldridge played Pistol. Welles had his daughter Beatrice play his page.

The Days We Have Seen

Shallow: “Jesus, the days that we have seen.” … Falstaff: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” (Henry IV, Part II, III.ii. 214 & 209-10.) Welles and Alan Webb.

Much of the actors’ attraction to Welles must have arisen from his close attention to the craft of acting and his respect for actors themselves. Janet Leigh once expressed her surprise on finding out that the first two weeks of work on Touch of Evil would be spent on rehearsal, with no shooting, an approach rare enough. But Welles also solicited the opinions of the actors, which created the feeling, according to Leigh, that the entire ensemble was engaged in creation. Much of this was the result of having headed up a successful theatre company of talented players. When he came to the movies, his films would help express the actions, feelings, prospects and limitations of the characters; the viewpoint of the camera would be an extension of set design. Directors who started with film tended to see actors as simply another prop, albeit moving ones, for the spectacle to be exhibited was “moving pictures.” Since cinema began without sound, theater experience for either actor or director was something beside the point. Early movies, say those of D.W. Griffith for example, emphasized crowds and massed movement. When people were alone or encountered another, the acting was filled with histrionics. When “talkies” became established, directors still treated actors as part of the scenery. Soon framed close-ups with cuts between speakers became the standard way of showing conversation.

Tim Holt

Wide shot in The Magnificent Ambersons: Young George Miniver (Tim Holt) learns to become the center of the universe. Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) listens as George’s parents (Dolores Costello and Don Dillaway) fail to give him their full attention.

Welles almost never used close-ups, and particularly avoided them in dialogs. From the very beginning, Welles usually filmed actors, even in conversation, in medium wide shots. Some of the most dramatic scenes in his movies (Kane in front of the mirrors, Fanny in the background making breakfast with George Miniver and Jack Amberson in the foreground eating breakfast, all sorts of shots of Hank Quinlan and so forth) were wide shots and even long shots. After he and cinematographer Gregg Toland perfected the use of deep focus, he was able to show characters acting in various depths of field. In that way movies became three-dimensional in the same way stages were. And thus theater actors were more important to him.

Quinlan and Grandi

Wide shot in Touch of Evil: Quinlan (Welles) confronts Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). In a world suffocating with corruption, a man’s bearing showed his rank in the pecking order.

The dramatic camera shots perfectly fit the kinds of stories Welles preferred to tell. They involved larger-than-life characters, usually with substantial flaws but notwithstanding the flaw they were portrayed sympathetically, as figures whose actions result in a crisis or turning point for a number (sometimes a large number) of people. Even minor characters, such as Fanny Amberson, though insignificant to most people, were treated with such empathy that even though she brings on a great tragedy, we still recognize her humanity. A self-professed “romantic” (of the early 19th century variety), Welles never attempted quiet personal moments, unresolved ambiguity or divided intentions. His characters could be stopped (and usually were), but only by countervailing forces, not failure of will.

The other aspect that sets the films of Welles apart was their reliance on dialogue. Welles never worried about letting his characters talk, so long as the talk was literate. This is another carryover from the theater. This one, however, seemed to violate everything about cinema even then, and now it would be considered daring, if not suicidal, to make a movie that did not have regular visual scenes that aroused, excited, titillated or shocked the viewer. I pass this over without comment; perhaps it is simply another symptom of our passage to a pre-rational, pre-literate stage. But all of this brings us to Chimes at Midnight.

Revolted Mortimer!

Henry (Sir John Gielgud): “No, on the barren mountains let him starve. / For I shall never hold that man my friend / Whose tongue shall ask me for one penny cost / To ransom home revolted Mortimer.” (Henry IV, Part I, I:iii:88-91.) The long shot shows the king’s icy domination over the volatile Hotspur (Norman Rodway), whom he nevertheless prefers to his own son.

I'll be friends with thee

Doll: “Come, I’ll be friends with thee, Jack; thou art going to the wars, and whether I shall ever see thee again or no there is nobody cares.” (Henry IV, Part II, II:iv:64-66.) Jean Moreau and Welles.

Welles laid claim to the War of Roses plays in the late 1930s before Hollywood was a prospect for him. In April 1938, at a “Shakespeare birthday luncheon” at the Waldorf Astoria, Welles announced that his Mercury Theatre Company in connection with the Theatre Guild would mount a “marathon” two-night production of “The Five Kings,” an abridgment of both parts of Henry IV together with Henry V (shown the first night) along with Henry VI and Richard III the second night. The 22 year old Welles (in his typically sententious manner—a relic of his history of being considered a prodigy) claimed that it was his intention to restore the plays which had been “lost to the living theater.” Welles promised it would be “a cavalcade of the fifteenth century.”

Welles-Julis Caesar

Photo of production of Julius Caesar in 1937. Caesar (Joseph Holland) far right, Brutus (Welles) second from the right, Publius (Joseph Cotton) far left, and Cassius (Martin Gabel) third from the left. From: The Holloway Pages.

The announcement was made just as Welles was riding his first wave of acclaim. It had been two years since he put on the all black “voodoo” Macbeth for the Federal Theater Project. He had directed a number of other noteworthy plays including Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and The Second Hurricane (with score by Aaron Copland). He was a famous national radio actor in a variety of plays and his Shadow detective series. By the Spring of 1938, the Mercury Theatre was in its first season and was performing four plays simultaneously, two in different theaters on the same block. Welles’s daring Julius Caesar, condensed to one act, done in modern garb and presented as the story of a modern totalitarian, electrified the newspaper critics. John Mason Brown of the New York Post (November 12, 1937) was perhaps the most ecstatic, suggesting that the play was more than entertainment, rather something vital and contemporary in the context of sinister world events:

Something deathless and dangerous in the world sweeps past you down the darkened aisles at the Mercury and takes possession of the proud, gaunt stage. It is something fearful and ominous, something turbulent and to be dreaded, which distends the drama to include the life of nations as well as of men. It is an ageless warning, made in such arresting terms that it not only gives a new vitality to an ancient story but unrolls in your mind’s eye a man of the world which is increasingly splotched with sickening colors.”

Welles and his partner in Mercury John Housman cut the run of Julius Caesar short (to the dismay of the box office manager who believed it would sell out indefinitely) in order to produce new plays. (For all his devotion to personal myth-making Welles always employed it to create the best production of the stories that interested him rather than money-making.) Surprisingly, the next play, Thomas Dekker’s Elizabethan comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday, proved even more successful to newspaper critics. Brook Atkinson declared that the regular replacement of works (regardless of the continued demand) was the sign of a healthy company. (It is also of advantage to the newspaper critic.) As for the play itself, Atkinson proved he was firmly among the Welles boosters, calling it “the funniest jig of the season and the new year has begun with a burst of theatrical hilarity.” He even provided a pedestrian marketing plug: “everyone who loves a good time will want to see it.”

Welles-Time

Welles in character as Captain Shotover from Heartbreak House on cover of Time, May 9, 1938.

The announcement by Welles of the proposed Henry plays was shortly followed by more acclaim. In May 1938 Time published a cover story on Welles. In the breathless prose the magazine used for unreflective puff pieces the article highlighted the 22-year-old’s extravagant lifestyle (large house, driver and limo, his “Falstaffian” appetite), swooned over his success (“the brightest moon that has risen over Broadway in years”) and contributed to his mad scientist reputation (“Welles is Caesar (not Brutus) where stagecraft is concerned, and in his own opinion ‘pretty dictatorial'”). But at this very time the Mercury Theatre was facing an existential crisis. Welles’s Caesarism was destroying the morale of the members (some of which simply quit). More importantly, the company was facing a financial crisis caused by its latest project. When the group took on Heartbreak House to close the season, it had to deal with the demands of the rights holder and author, George Bernard Shaw. For the first time it had to pay royalties and comply with the stage instructions of an outsider who demanded real (and expensive) sets rather than the “gimmicks” the company got away with in its revivals. And because Welles could not impose his own concepts on the text, he felt compelled to hire genuine Broadway actors, who were much more expensive than his own crew. The considerable additional expense squeezed the finances of the group and put into doubt whether it could go forward. And so both Welles and Houseman delayed plans for the next season (including postponing the start of Five Kings), which resulted in more actors quitting.

Five Kings-1

Welles as Falstaff and Burgess Meredith as Prince Hal in Five Kings. From: The Holloway Pages.

As would become a commonplace over Welles’s career, a deus ex machina saved the day. CBS Radio offered the Mercury Theatre a deal for nine one-hour radio dramas, which would become Mercury Theatre on the Air. When that engagement ended in September it was renewed until December. And then the company obtained a permanent sponsor and the show became known as the Campbell Playhouse, which would last until Welles moved to Hollywood. The weekly demands of a new radio play postponed preparation for Five Kings so repeatedly that most considered it abandoned. But the most troubling  factor was what seemed to be the inability of Welles to stir himself to attend to the details of theatrical production until things had descended to a crisis. It was what happened with the Mercury Theatre’s production of Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, which opened in November 1938.

Five Kings-2

Hotspur (John Emery): “… men of your nobility and power did gage them both in an unjust behalf … to put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, and plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke.” Five Kings, I:ix (from Henry IV, Part I, I:iii:170-174). MacGregor Gibb (as Northumberland, middle) and Eustace Wyatt (as Northumberland, right) (Lilly Library, Indiana University, from Richard France, see below.)

Welles and Houseman could be counted on for selecting a timely and often forgotten play. But if you look back on the whole of Welles’s career, this play seems a very odd choice. Late in life Welles boasted that he was a Romantic and an “enemy” of modern times. (Just as, he said, Falstaff was an enemy of his own modern times.) Welles was drawn to stories that involved large personalities, with grand themes and usually operatic plot lines. Danton’s Death, though written in 1835 during the height of European Romanticism, was anything but Romantic. Büchner’s Woyzeck, written two year later, would show that he was decades ahead of his time and thoroughly imbued with modernist sensibilities. Although less daring than WoyzeckDanton’s Death looked decades into the future. The latter play, therefore, simply did not have any resonance with Welles. More problematic, however, was that Welles had no concept, no “gimmick,” to apply to it. The essence of Welles’ theater direction was always in staging and choreography. He was not particularly an actor’s director. But with Danton’s Death he had no grand concept to push and so he seems to have lost interest.

The lackluster piece marked the turning point for many newspaper critics, some of which were already fed up with the adulation of the 23 year old. (Perhaps it also had something to do with the brouhaha caused by the Mercury Theatre of the Air’s radio production of World of the Worlds the previous week.) The Brooklyn Eagle-Examiner (Nov. 6, 1938) ran the headline: “Orson Welles does Büchner’s Danton’s Death Over to a Little thing of his Own, Enjoying Life as a Boy Prodigy” (only in all caps). John Mason Brown, the Post‘s critic who gave the breathless review of Julius Caesar said (Nov. 5, 1938) Danton’s Death was too “arty” and “too self-conscious for comfort.” It was panned for being slow and episodic. Edward Watts of the New York Herald-Tribune (Nov. 3, 1938) deprecated the staging: “Every movement is made as if it were artistically precious, and it manages to achieve not a rhythm that seems appropriate to the French Revolution but rather one that indicates a belief on Mr. Welles’s part that everything he is doing is significant.” Even Brooks Atkinson had doubts. He called Welles an “erratic genius” and criticized Welles’s action saying “[h]is eccentric phrasing … sacrifices meaning to apostolic sound.” In a second comment a week later Atkinson was more prophetic:

“Plays have to give way to his whims, and actors have to subordinate their art when he gets under way, for The Shadow is the monarch of all he surveys. It is no secret that his willfulness and impulsiveness may also wreck his Mercury Theatre, for he is a thorough egoist in the grand manner of the old-style tragedian.”

Five Kings would fulfill the prophesy.

In the first place, the concept was hubris reified. The idea of putting on three Shakespeare plays (that at best clock in at near 4 hours each) and parts of four others in two nights was problematic at best. When it was announced, it was simply a wish, because Welles had not even outlined the script yet. Nor would he get to it until pressed. But the idea was not to isolate one theme or idea of the plays, but rather to simply condense them all. This was inherently problematic. But it interested the moribund Theatre Guild from whom Houseman arranged fairly generous support.

Master Planx 1 & 2

Two of James Morcom’s master plans for the stage with rotating device. There were also three battlefield plans. From Richard France (see below).

Second, the “gimmick” that Welles came up with to tie everything together (and perhaps speed things up) was a revolving stage. In addition to the stationary aprons the stage would hold a 28-foot circular palette, rotated by an electric motor, with wooden curtains behind that would allow stage hands to change scenes. The sections marked off by walls had doors or gates to allow actors to move from one scene to another.  The concept may have worked well in a permanent theater setup, but the production was intended to tour several cities before opening in New York. Only an incurable optimist would believe that this mechanism (which was the central feature of the set) would work flawlessly, and no thought was given to a back-up plan. The revolving stage also impacted rehearsals because the build took up most of the time allotted for them.

But the main problem was the disinterest shown by the procrastination of Orson Welles himself. He delayed in producing a script. (In the end only the first night’s production was ever written, making the affair more like Three Kings). He arrived very late for rehearsals and wasted time while there. The problem was compounded by casting a kindred spirit in Burgess Meredith as Hal. The two encouraged each other to carouse both on and off the set. The two often missed rehearsals entirely.

Simon Callow described the problem as a combination of all the foregoing:

Five Kings-3

Falstaff (Welles): “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” (Five Kings, I:xix, from Henry IV, Par ii, III:ii:209-210). Edgar Kent (as Shallow, left) and Fred Stewart (as Silence, left). From Richard France (see below).

“Welles’s one interest in Five Kings was staging it; without the turntable, he had no motive to work. Indeed, one of the problems Welles had increasingly to face in the theatre was that, denied the enormous resources of the Federal Theatre Project, his method of working without any plan, without even any tentative moves, of depending on the inspiration of the moment and what the other actors and the setting would offer him, was totally impractical. Only a fully subsidised European State Theatre could have provided him with what he wanted: the full set in the rehearsal room from the first day. So he stayed away, until the technical period, when he could really work on the set. Meanwhile the other actors struggled on as best they could. This was not very well at all.”

Perhaps it was the lavish budgets of Hollywood once he would discover them and their technical proficiency that kept bringing Welles back, even after he discovered Hollywood was not as enamored with him as the New York stage had been.

As the debut came closer the work became more frantic. It was not until close to the opening that Welles realized that his script needed to be pared down to get the performance under five hours. Because the trimming was within scenes (rather than eliminating some), it made the play more episodic, requiring stage changes (and rotations of the turntable) more frequent. In the end the crisis mentality created a disaster rather than the theater magic that Welles generally pulled off at the last minute.

The Boston premier from a technical viewpoint was a nightmare. The rapidly rotating rotary flung parts of the scenery into the audience. The narrator, who was supposed to disappear by walking through a door on the rotary, became so afraid of the device that he exited into the orchestra pit. And the show clocked at nearly 4 and a half hours, ending around 12:30. Bostonians, used to shows not nearly ready for Broadway, were not especially vicious. The AP report only complained that it needed to be trimmed more. By the end of the Boston schedule it had been trimmed to three and a half hours, but it was still not a triumph and critics were ready to pounce.

- their stings and teeth newly ta'en out

Henry (Gielgud), about to die, warns Hal (Baxter): “… all my friends, which thou must make thy friends, have but their stings and teeth newly ta’en out … ” (Henry IV, Part II, IV:v:205-206). Henry’s advice points out to Hal the rules of an entirely different life than that pursued by Falstaff.

The ambitious road tour was cancelled, and the production moved to Washington, D.C. where the critics were mainly interested in the internal politics of the show. The Baltimore stop was cancelled and finally it landed in its last road destination, Philadelphia, where the final indignities met it. The theater was not equipped for the electrical requirements of the rotating stage, nor could it be fixed in time. So the stage hands were required to push the thing around, at glacial speed. The stage itself was not a good fit for the rotating stage in any event and accommodating it compromised audience view. The critics were generally negative about all aspect of the production but the one review that had to have cut Welles the most was written in the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 21, 1939), which unfavorably compared Welles’s portray of Falstaff with Maurice Evens who performed the role on Broadway several years before. The critic went so far as to say that Welles had either “understudied or mis-studied his part.” Leaving no stone unturned the critic concluded that “To compare Orson Welles’s Falstaff to Mr. Evans’s Falstaff, John Emery’s Hotspur to Wesley Addy’s Hotspur, Burgess Meredith’s Prince Hal to Winston O’Keefe’s Prince of Wales or Mr. Welles’s course-keyed direction to the electrifying direction of Margaret Webster would be as unconscionable as it would be unkind.”

The show never made it to New York and the Mercury Theatre, at least as a playhouse company, ceased to exist. Welles would be off to Hollywood, for better or worse. But the one project he would not forget was Five Kings. Houseman thought that the reason he originally pursued it was because of his distaste for Maurice Evans: “Five Kings was never purely an aesthetic conception—it was conditioned in its conception and its execution by a desire to go Evans one better.” Half a century later Welles called Evans one of the “bums” to Peter Bogdanovich.

And so, once his affair with Hollywood was finally over, Welles returned to the Hal–Falstaff story with a production on the Dublin stage of Chimes at Midnight, which starred as Hal Keith Baxter as would his film five years later. Over the many years since the failed play, Welles’s conception changed drastically. And so did his plan for the drama. It was no longer to be a condensation of Shakespeare, it was to focus on Falstaff, who Welles came to view as the central tragic figure.

Inquire at London

Seeking his son, Henry (Gielgud) orders: “I would to God, my lords, he might be found. Inquire at London ‘mongst the taverns there; for there, they say, he daily doth frequent with unrestrained loose companions …” (Richard II, V:iii:4-7).

Chimes at Midnight is not really a filmed version of Shakespeare. The two Henry IV plays are mostly about royal succession. Falstaff is a (large) maguffin to explain why Prince Hal (the heir to the throne) is not loyal to his father. The Henry IV plays, like most Shakespeare “message” plays, have more than one relationship ostensibly or formally similar but inherently somewhat different. In the two Henry IV plays there are four Henrys, making two father-son relations: Henry IV and Prince Hal and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, the father of Henry Percy, called Hotspur for his volatile temper. The King despairs of his son, the Prince of Wales, because he is dissolute, spending his time with Sir John Falstaff, unlike Hotspur, who is zealous in putting down rebellions. Henry IV expressly wishes that Hotspur were his son. Hotspur’s father, Northumberland, proves to be unreliable. During the climactic battle between the Percys and the King, Northumberland fails to send his forces and as a result his son, Hotspur, is killed (by Hal, to tie up the other father-son parallels). The reason that all of this has more than passing interest than just another group of barbarians fighting for power, has to do with another Medieval type: the sanctity of kingship. Henry IV, with the assistance of the senior Percys, overthrew and killed Richard II.  If the divine right of kings meant anything, then Henry IV did not possess that sanction. And Henry through two plays agonized about it. That together with his errant son hounded him to death. Hal on the other hand is attracted to the dissolute Falstaff as a father figure, because Jack (as he is known) represents everything that Henry his father is not—unconstrained, irreligious, lacking in class-based or psychoanalytic restraints. Falstaff becomes a major figure in Shakespeare’s works because like Hamlet (and a few others in smaller ways) he is aware that the existing order is in disarray and that sanity lies in not taking part. Hamlet, however, has stakes in the status quo, at least enough to “fix” it. Falstaff has no stakes except Hal, who will likely become king. The likelihood is so important that Falstaff goes to war together with Hal to put down the Percys’ rebellion.  But he does it, not because he believes in the order of things, but for Hal.

Wherefore do I tell thee

Henry to Hal: “Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes, Which art my nearest and dearest enemy? Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear Base inclination, and the start of spleen,To fight against me under Percy’s pay …” (Henry IV, Part I, III:ii:122–126).

Exploring all this is why Shakespeare takes so much time in development. But because the lynchpin of the social order of medieval society (divine ordering of succession) has no interest to us, much of the drama in the historical plays escapes us. And Welles rightly (for us) dispenses with it. So the Shakespeare that survives is not the Renaissance Shakespeare willing to explore the essence of medieval social orderings (because we have long lost interest in that). It is rather a different Shakespeare. Welles converted Shakespeare’s Renaissance historical analysis into (as Vincent Canby noted) a Romantic novel, which focuses primarily on the psychological dimensions of the relationship between Hal and Falstaff with Falstaff as the central character. Other attempts have been made to “modernize” Shakespeare, including Laurence Olivier and Welles himself. But if one is interested in the Shakespeare of psychological verisimilitude (rather than, say, the expressionistic Shakespeare that is the essence of Macbeth or Lear). then Chimes of Midnight is the best of what is on film.

To accomplish the conversion of the Renaissance Shakespeare discussing political matters of no interest to us to a Shakespeare of psychological relevance to our time required an extensive re-write. And Welles put together new dialogue spliced from several plays, created new scenes by cobbling together parts of unconnected scenes and slimming down the plot line by making the one battle shown (Shrewsbury) the pivotal event. You can get an idea of how Welles wove together fragments by looking at the following chart which gives the sources for the dialogue in the first few scenes of the movie:

Source Chart

If you go back to the original plays, you can see that Welles was indeed rewriting Shakespeare. Early in his Mercury Theatre career literary critics sharply denounced his tampering with Shakespeare. Mary McCarthy, then writing for the Partisan Review, said of Julius Caesar: “The production of Caesar turns into a battleground between Mr. Welles’s play and Shakespeare’s play. Mr. Welles has cut the play to pieces—turned Cassius into a shrewd and jovial comedian; Caesar into a mechanical, expressionless robot; Antony into a repulsive and sinister demagogue.” But of course any condensation requires the loss of something. The same was true in Five Kings when Welles was aiming at a shorter version but one still faithful to the themes and characterizations of Shakespeare. His approach to Chimes at Midnight was quite different. Falstaff would no longer be the witty vagabond who tempted Hal away from his duty. Falstaff would become the centerpiece. The palace intrigues and plots were cut down to a minimum, kept mainly to explain the choice to be made by Hal. Worcester is reduced to a petty plotter, but Welles uses Hollinshed’s words to justify it. Northumberland’s failure as a plotter, not to mention as a father, is not a part of the film. And Henry IV is portrayed as set upon by plotters with no probing of the guilt that comes with usurping the throne, regicide and his war against the rightful occupant, Hotspur’s bother-in-law Mortimer. Characters at the tavern are reduced and other minor figures are eliminated or only seen briefly.

The reduction of the political aspect could have been problematic because its complexity seems to require longer explication. But Welles pulls it off deftly by compressing dialogue which took place over a longer time in the plays into single scenes. The episodic nature (which plagued Five Kings) is thus avoided. And even more cleverly, scenes seem to anticipate the next (when Henry explains how his son frequents the taverns, the next scene is the tavern itself, for example).

Imitate the Sun

Hal: “Yet herein I shall imitate the sun …” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:195).

That is not to say that aspects are not enigmatic. The character of Hal is somewhat unbelievable. Hal is a type to make the exploration of succession and filial loyalty the centerpiece. Hals’s problem is to decide between the mincing morality of his compromised father and the “freedom” of Falstaff, who is beyond a conscience formed by a corrupt society (as all societies are). It would be easy enough to show the choice to be illusory. He is heir apparent and must do his duty to the kingdom. (Shakespeare’s Tudor audience would undoubtedly have agreed.) Nor is the fact that he spent his youth debauched surprising. It is not only monarchs who end up in powerful positions after a dissolute youth. What makes Hal’s character seem untrue to life is the secret resolution he articulates to continue his debaucheries so that when he ultimately reforms (when he becomes king) the people will marvel at the transformation, like the sun emerging from clouds (see Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:193-215). This is a problem in the original play, not one caused by Welles.

The resolution can perhaps be considered the rationalization of an egocentric. He is never shown to act empathetically toward anyone, and the film certainly plays up the mean-spiritedness of Hal. At the end of the movie we see that Hal (now Henry V) is utterly without feeling and perhaps that is the best way to tie up the character. Shakespeare cannot do so because he continues with Henry V, where Hal becomes the hero. How are we to avoid distaste for such a character?

A.D. Nuttall propounds the theory that Hal is like the “Friend” in the sonnets whom Shakespeare loves and whose unresponsiveness Shakespeare admires. He points to Sonnet 94, where he approves of his Friend’s ability to conceal his intentions and indeed says that being “unmoved” and “cold” imitates “heavenly graces”:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.

It is true that once he becomes king, Hal urges his followers to have their brow overwhelm their eyes like “a galled rock” (Henry V, III:1:12), but he is giving a war speech there. Maybe, however, the ability to control one’s countenance (which is another way of dissemble one’s intentions) is necessary for a king. Nuttal, however, has another explanation:

“If this were the nineteenth century I should now be permitted to speculate—to wonder whether Prince Hall was not founded on the beloved Friend, whether our difficulties with the prince may not arise from the fact that we, unlike Shakespeare, are not in love with him, that for us he gives light but not warmth, to wonder whether the rejected Falstaff, the myriad-minded, the genius with words, the messy, disordered man, might not be an ectype of Shakespeare himself, who in the sonnet made an intense effort to give praise to the other sort, to the beautiful, reserved man.”

However we explain Hal, and whether or not Falstaff was Shakespeare’s alter ego, it is clear that Welles invests Falstaff with all his own views. In the latter part of his life Welles often talked of disliking modern times. (Some of Welles’s narration in F for Fake, for example, elaborates on that feeling.) This is perhaps a common enough feeling among men after 50 especially if they believe they were not allowed the success they feel entitled to. But Welles had long felt that modern times had ruined more Edenic times where he belonged. After all, The Magnificent Ambersons, made in his mid-twenties, showed how a golden age had been overwhelmed by an uglier age of technology and base commerce. Welles makes Falstaff into a romantic who longed for return of Arthurian days.  The present days are an iron age compared to the once golden one.

Welles does not make up Falstaff’s idealistic nostalgia. There are a few hints in the play: In Henry IV, Part II, II:4:33 Fastaff enters singing “When Arthur first in court … .” More importantly in Henry V when his former friends are discussing whether he is in heaven or hell, Hostess replies that he is not in hell, but rather in “Arthur’s bosom” (II:iii:9-10). (Hostess confuses Arthur with Abraham in the parable (Luke 16:19-31), and it is clear that she sees Falstaff as the poor Lazarus, denied succor from the powerful in life, who ends in paradise in the afterlife.)

Welles took these ideas, enlarged upon them and made them the basis for his characterization of Falstaff. The concept corresponded to his own thinking at the time. The JFK administration was popularizing the notion of Camelot as ideal, and the assassination proved that it was a lost ideal. Welles himself (like Broadway and the JFK administration) got his concept of Camelot from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which he reportedly read at rehearsals of Chimes at Midnight.

Falstaff thus became in the film an idealist, with pure morals and the right view of how men should behave. But he was trapped in an unkind and corrupt age. Falstaff’s witticisms are not the empty chatter of a dipsomaniac but rather the currency he uses to accommodate himself to the times and its inhabitants. He holds himself in more esteem than others do (which makes him look foolish) but in this he is being true to himself who is out of place and out of time. That he is a small time highwayman does not make him a criminal in these times where even the greatest of men trade in the deepest crimes. That he lives in a tavern among thieves and prostitutes merely illustrates the degeneracy of the age.

Opening Scene

Opening scene with Falstaff and Shallow.

The blighted, barren and dark condition of the times is on view from the very first scene outside Shallow’s castle where Falstaff and Shallow walk among the leafless trees in dead of winter. Even high places are blighted, however. The palaces are dark, vacant and cavelike. Henry’s court is lined with silent soldiers showing the ever present danger to even the head of state. Henry is plagued by the fear of plots and rebellions and cannot count on his own son to aid him. The outdoors are barren of forests, instead soldiers’ pikes take the place of trees.

The elite of these times think of nothing but plotting for their own survival. Hotspur, whom Henry would fain have his son over Hal, thinks of nothing but military victory. He ignores his beautiful and playful wife, even avoiding her caresses, the quicker to be off to battle. Only the rabble know that there is no glory in war. When Falstaff goes off to muster troops for Henry’s defense, the men all seek to avoid it. But as in all corrupt times the poor must pay dearly for the folly of the powerful.

I'll canvass thee between a pair of sheets

Doll to Falstaff who threatens to do harm to Pistol: “Do, an thou darest for thy heart. An thou dost, I’ll canvass thee between a pair of sheets.” ( Henry IV, Part 2, II:iv:219-220).

It is only at the Boar’s Tavern that anything like congenial human intercourse takes place. And here Falstaff is clearly the king. Welles invests the character with gravitas even as he acts the clown. The performance is undoubtedly Welles’s revenge on Maurice Evans. Key to the atmosphere is the earnest goodness of Hostess, called Mistress Quickly, played by Margaret Rutherford. Jeanne Moreau’s Doll Tearsheet, erotic, young, attractive and fiercely protective of Falstaff, adds dimension to him, showing that he has qualities that evoke tenderness and devotion.

Falstaff as Henry

Falstaff (as King Henry): “There is a thing, Harry, which thou hast often heard of, and it is known to many in our land by the name of pitch. This pitch—as ancient writers do report—doth defile, so doth the company thou keepest.” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:403-406.)

But the central dynamic of the film is between Falstaff and Hal. Falstaff clearly loves him and while Hal never reciprocates Falstaff is not put off. In fact he ignores all the many hints that Hal will not repay the affection Falstaff has lavished on him. Falstaff sees Hal as something of a son and accepts him as he is, something that Hal’s own father is incapable of doing. In the play within a play Falstaff takes the part of Hal’s father Henry and lectures him the way his father would, except that he explains the virtues of Falstaff. When the two change parts, Hal as King Henry berates Falstaff. Falstaff as Hal pleads Falstaff’s defense and concludes by saying: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:465.) To this, Hal replies: “I do, I will.” (line 466). It is a startling foreshadowing of what Hal intends, but the conversation is immediately broken off when an announcement is made that the sheriff and “a most monstrous watch” is at the door.  Earlier in the film a similar hint is dropped and again not picked up. When Hal at first refuses to rob a group of pilgrims on the next morning, Falstaff humorously prodding him says: “By the Lord, I’ll be a traitor then, when thou art King.” Hal replies coldly: “I care not.” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:144-146).

Falstaff earnestly believes in Hal’s loyalty and on occasion asks how Hal will act as king. Hal is always non-committal. So it is not a shock to us when Hal, made Henry V, betrays Falstaff. The moment is nonetheless stunning because Welles plays Falstaff with such joyous enthusiasm in his quest to pay obeisance to the new king. When he prostrates himself before his new liege, the heartless brutality of the rejection is so sudden and so cruel that it is devastating. And Welles perfectly expresses the devastation, which will soon lead to his death. The film ends with the death of Falstaff and the remembrances by his friends unlike Five Kings and so is more successful as a narrative.

I have omitted mention of the thing that is usually first noted when discussing Chimes at Midnight: the battle of Shrewsbury. The scene is rightly lauded for its look and its influence on later films which portray medieval hand-to-hand combat. It involved months of editing by Welles and turns out not only as a perfect visualization of such a battle, but also adds to the theme of desolate times. The battle takes place in a muddy lifeless slough. The intensity, violence, cruelty and hatred it conveys depict everything that Falstaff deplores about the age. It marks the break between Hal and Falstaff (although Falstaff does not know it or admit it to himself) since Hal has finally impressed his father by killing Hotspur and acclimated himself to the nasty, brutal and short life of the warrior king. (The last we see of him at the end of the film he is off to make war on the French.)

The movie is a deeply thoughtful conception of the characters created by Shakespeare. Unless you are of the group that find any tampering with the bard to be sacrilege, I think you will find it engaging. (Of course, one is  better prepared if he has at least a summary of the plots of the two Henry IV plays in mind; otherwise things may become murky.) It has the original cinematography and imaginative staging that one expects from any film by Welles, and the acting is uniformly of high quality, with especial efforts by Gielgud, Moreau and Rutherford.

After the run at the Film Forum the film is scheduled for national distribution and possibly a release on video disc. The restoration is not a 4K one, which I read would take several more years. It is instead a “DCP restoration,” which is a digital restoration of some sort and therefore avoided by purists. But we live in corrupt times just like Falstaff’s and we are unlikely to see real film (rather than a digital file) ever again. But to paraphrase Shallow, “Oh! the films we have seen!”

Update 3/8/2016: Further thoughts on Chimes at Midnight are found in Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem”

Sources

____, “New Drama Built upon Shakespeare,” New York Times, April 24, 1938, p. 41 (online; subscription required).

_____, “The Theatre: Marvelous Boy,” Time, May 9, 1938 (online; subscription required).

Associated Press, “Welles’s ‘Five Kings’ Cheered in Boston,” New York Times, February 28, 1939, p. 23 (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Mercury Theatre Adds Dekker’s ‘The Shoemakers’ Holiday’ to Its Repertory,” New York Times, January 3, 1938, p. 17 (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Mercury Going Up,” New York Times, January 9, 1938,  Section 10, p. [1] (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Mercury Theatre Reopens with Orson Welles’s Production of ‘Danton’s Death,'” New York Times, November 3, 1938, p. 28 (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Gotham Hobgoblin: Orson Welles Frightening Little Playgoers in ‘Danton’s Death,'” New York Times, November 13, 1938, Section 9, p. [1] (online; subscription required).

Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles, This is Orson Welles (ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum) (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (New York: Viking, 1996).

Vincent Canby, “‘Chimes at Midnight,’ Welles’s Own Shakespeare,” New York Times, June 19, 1992, p. C15 (online; open access).

Peter Conrad, Orson Welles: The Story of his Life (London: Faber and Faber, ©2oo3).

Richard France (ed.), Orson Welles on Shakespeare: The W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre Playscripts (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, ©1990).

Lawrence Langner, The Magic Curtain (New York: Dutton, 1951).

Mary McCarty, Sights and Spectacles (New York: Ferrar Strauss, 1956).

A.D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

,it is

Prince of the Himalayas this Friday (12/18) at the Rubin

This Friday night, December 18, the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan will again screen Sherwood Hu’s Prince of the Himalayas. Because the film is rarely seen in the United States, though it ought to be, I am reposting a (slightly revised) review of mine from the last time it was shown (in 2103), a shwoing attended by the director.
Promotional still from Prince of the Himalayas

Promotional still from Prince of the Himalayas, showing Purba Rgyal who plays Prince Lhamoklodan, the Hamlet of the film.

Last night [January 31, 2013] the Rubin Museum of Art had a one-time showing of Sherwood Hu’s Prince of the Himalayas, one of the few theatrical showings of the film since it first premiered in the United States a little more than a year ago, at, of course, the Rubin Museum of Art. The Rubin Museum is a stunningly beautiful showcase for art of Tibet and surrounding areas and has a very enlightened programming policy. Sherwood Hu attended this showing.

The movie has received critical acclaim wherever it’s been shown, and, according to Hu, created such demand in China that many more prints than originally planned were rushed into production. In the years since it was released in 2006 it has had almost no showings in the United States. The Internet Movie Database says that it has grossed only $9,178 as of January 2012. The only explanation is that Hu’s Entertainment (the production company) must have no relations with any US distributors.

Sonamdolgar, who plays Odsaluyang, the Tibetan version of Ophelia.

Sonamdolgar, who plays Odsaluyang, the Tibetan version of Ophelia.

Notwithstanding its lack of success in the United States (or perhaps explaining it), it’s easy to see why the film would appeal to audiences who are not addicted to automobile pile ups and exploding buildings. The movie was filmed entirely in Tibet, and the gorgeous scenery is shown to stunning effect by wide-angle cinematography as well as cleverly choreographed long crane shots. It takes no effort to make Himalayan scenery inspiring, and the camera work does not draw attention to itself. The film is also filled with carefully framed face shots of the various members of the cast, all Tibetan, most of whom are beautiful (some stunningly) and the rest at least ruggedly handsome.

The Tibetan Gertrude and Claudius (played by Zomskyid and Dobrgyal).

The Tibetan Gertrude and Claudius (played by Zomskyid and Dobrgyal).

The action takes place in medieval Tibet, before the advent of Buddhism, and therefore the rituals are keyed to the Bon religion. Hu said that the setting was suggested to him by a living Buddha (tulku) with whom he discussed the project while still in incipient stages. The setting allows for two other features that are immediately captivating. First, the music (composed by Xuntian He), which is almost continuous through the film, is performed almost exclusively on percussion with solo flute and clarinet. The low (and stifled) pounding of the large (skin-covered ?) drums provides a riveting propulsive depth framing the action. Second, the costumes and sets (of villages, the palace and places of ritual) are staggering in their exotic strangeness. The statuary, the sacred places (the monumental stones, mountains and rivers) and building structures are foreign, but their spiritual significance is immediately intuited. The costumes suggest people who were both practical and spiritual: their religion partaking of and transcending nature. The rituals, both celebratory (as in the marriage feast) and grief-filled (as in the scene of Odsaluyang’s funeral) are visually sumptuous and moving in their outward representation of things mystical. The female dancers at the marriage feast are hypnotic.

It is, however, the story that remains. It is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, not only transported to a different place and time, but also told for almost the opposite purpose. The play was about revenge (and dynastic succession, but that part is neither here nor there). Here Hu says the film is about forgiveness. But even Hu’s synopsis is not entirely complete, because the forgiveness is not so much for what happened in the Shakespeare play, but rather for actions based on the belief that those things happened. Yet by and large those beliefs are mistaken. The film’s action may take place before Buddhism, but still, in this movie if not everything, at least the important things, are all an illusion. 

In the vast spaces of the Himalayas under the overwhelming presence of the mountains, ritual is more like a plea than a comfort.

In the vast spaces of the Himalayas under the overwhelming presence of the mountains, ritual is more like a plea than a comfort.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot changes because seeing the changes from Shakespeare’s version and watching how they play out (and often return to the action of the original play) is a great part of the illumination that the film aims for. I will hint at one major feature that allows for the plot changes: Hamlet’s dead and now spectral father is not the innocent victim crying out for just vengeance. In Shakespeare, the justice of revenge is taken as given. Here it is shown to be altogether wrong. The shaman (played by Luo Sang Da Wa) repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to stop Prince Lhamoklodan (the Hamlet figure played by Purba Rgyal) from carrying through his plan to slay his uncle (and now step-father). She explains how vengeance will lead to massacre, but Lhamoklodan is beyond persuasion at this point (whose resolve is very much unlike the Elizabethan Hamlet). When the ghost father sees that the Shaman has altered (somewhat) the course he intended, he cries out, “What is this new poison?” and she replies, “Love.” Incidentally, the figure of the shaman is cleverly added to the story, and it is she who produces the “play” which is designed to catch the conscience of the king.

Maternal and filial love and mutual misunderstanding.

Maternal and filial love and mutual misunderstanding.

What is daring about the retelling is that it uses almost none of the language of Shakespeare. And since the theme and characterizations are different, you might conclude that there is nothing left of Shakespeare. (Those fans of Elizabethan theatrical battles and sword fights will be happy to know that they remain, and Hu adds to them.) But Shakespeare is still the overpowering presence to the viewer, if at least as the counterweight. In Shakespeare, the intellectual action is philosophical, even when Hamlet is sure that there is more in heaven and earth that dreamed of in philosophy. Hamlet meets his existential crisis with philosophy, and the encounter drives him mad. Hu portrays the existential crisis in terms of mythology and mythological symbols. And if we are players in a universe that is governed by eternal mythological tropes, we are governed by obligations. The shaman says our obligation is love, but she means it in an entirely different way than the characters understand it. The characters divide love into categories: filial, maternal, paternal, matrimonial, sensual and they miss the point because all these categories conflict. And when one category of love is ended, unjustly, then the only response these characters (and we too) can have is hatred and desire for revenge.

Death and birth in one mythological trope. We all fulfill our role, and it goes on.

Death and birth in one mythological trope. We all fulfill our roles, and it goes on.

It is the unjust end of filial love that drive both Hamlet and Ophelia in this film mad. The loss of the object of their love creates in each of them hatred for the cause of the loss and then for everything else. Shakespeare’s Hamlet tries to use rationality to battle his alienation from everything, Prince Lhamoklodan tries to escape back to his studies in Persia but learns on the way that there can be no escape. In both cases he has to decide if he can fight the “sea of troubles,” and in both cases he decides to try. In both cases he loses, as he must. Ophelia in both treatments dies, but in Hu’s her death is complicated by other roles she has and can’t fulfill because of her alienation. When she does die, it’s while giving birth (she only understands the pain and the necessity for cutting the cord) in a scene suffused with mythological symbolism.

Hu said that the entire film was completed in less than 80 days. Two months were spent with the cast, living together, exercising and role-playing. The shooting took less than a month. The characters’ reactions to each other show how they have internalized the story and their personalities. Even the set shots and the facial close-ups reveal nuances that we only come to understand as we see how the story differs from what we expected. In this regard, Dobrgyal, who plays Claudius (Kulo-ngam in the film) is particularly noteworthy, because he is the character around whom all plotting revolves and the one whose motives are the most surprising. It would be interesting to view the film again, with the knowledge one obtains from the first viewing. When that will be, however, is a sad question. There doesn’t seem to be another showing scheduled in the United States (at least none in New York) although it does appear to be available on Netflix. The Rubin Museum announced before the showing that the film has been deposited in its permanent collection; I have no idea whether that allows anyone to see it, however.

It is unfortunate that the editing does not come up to the same standards as the acting and cinematography. There are jumps that are a bit unsettling to someone accustomed to the thing that Hollywood has down pat (for all its other shortcomings). It is a flaw that is particularly noticeable given the stately bearing of the characters and the deliberate pace of the tragedy. The very ending (which gives the film an oddly non-Shakespearian uplift) is also somewhat flat. It doesn’t seem to resolve anything or explain the need for the tragedies we’ve witnessed. If it is designed to assure us that things go on despite what we do, it’s probably unnecessary (or perhaps even a worse tragedy) and seems inconsistent with what we have seen. Or maybe it is nothing more than opportunities for others to disregard the shaman’s message. Perhaps Shakespeare here really had the best idea: when you have that many bodies on stages, there’s really nothing more to say.

I see your face in every flower

A genius once wrote:

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, “This poet lies,
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.”

Isn’t it more economical to just sing?:

Billie Holiday (vocal), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Dicky Wells (trombone), Lester Young (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Margaret Johnson (piano), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums). September 15, 1938.

Dicky Wells’s trombone solo is almost as reverential as the President’s clarinet.

Memory and Forgetting in Hart Crane

Hart Crane

Hart Crane. Photograph by Walker Evans ca. 1930.

Hart Crane (1899-1932) has long suffered from the reputation of being a difficult poet. Even his admirers, like Tennessee Williams, claimed inability to understand much of what he wrote. It is an odd complaint to lay at the feet of a modernist. Scholars delight in gathering up the cinders of unrelated and often undigested literary references in Eliot and Pound, and in fact assigning sense to the assemblage is considered their highest contribution to criticism.

Crane did not flaunt scholastic references. Instead he tried to plumb a layer of understanding, something like the subconscious, by using what he called the “logic of metaphor.” (It did not help his reputation that his explanation was much more obscure than his poetry. He unhelpfully called his approach the “dynamics of inferential mention.”) Because metaphor (like the subconscious) is not capable of linear exposition by critics (as in “Eliot saw the plight of modern man as …”), it requires more reflection than academics. And since it is a personal language the reader can never know if he fully grasped what was intended. But didn’t Chekhov say that another’s soul was like a cave?

Much of the critical dismissal of Crane centers on his large ambitious effort The Bridge, especially as it supposedly fails to compare favorably to its acknowledged model The Waste Land  (It is perhaps an overstatement to say “dismissal.” It is more the iterated regret that Crane lacked “something” compared to Eliot, without considering how it contains features largely absent from all of Eliot’s work, namely lyrical expression of emotion). The comparison, as a critical campaign, was always somewhat silly, but it is beside the point here, where we look at two poems, one from a collection earlier than The Bridge and another never collected in Crane’s lifetime, written even earlier than the first.

It seems to me that one need not be a “post-modern” to accept that a proper realm for poems is the interior, for lack of a better word, Chekhov’s “soul.” A first person view is no less worth exploring than an “objective” view of the state of world culture or ruminations on religion. The subjective is perhaps the only valid perspective, and if it’s excluded, everything from Wordsworth to Swinburne has to be chucked. (The modernists at first wanted most of them excluded from the canon, but had difficulty excluding some. Of course, the big problem for English modernists was what to do with Shakespeare, whose sonnets are nothing if not personal, subjective and “Romantic”).

It should have been some comfort to the other modernists that Crane’s interior views revealed no sentimentalism. In fact, as we’ll see in the poems below, the past is not romanticized; if anything it is a source of pain in the way that nostalgia is not.  In the first one memory is a delicate task, permitted only in the interstices between rain drops. It requires effort, a “reach” (with long fingers) and threatens to disturb the subject of the memory, because the one remembering must take it through his own past, his own understanding.

"Morning on the Seine in the Rain" by Claude Monet. (Oil on canvas. 1897-98. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.)

“Morning on the Seine in the Rain” by Claude Monet. (Oil on canvas. 1897-98. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.)

R.P. Blackmur, the (somewhat pretentious) New Critic and Princeton writing instructor, once summarized critical opinion about Crane this way (“New Thresholds, New Anatomies: Notes on a Text of Hart Crane” in Language as Gesture (New York, Harcourt, Brace: c1952)): “Almost everyone who has written on Crane has found in him a central defect, either of imagination or execution, or both.” He goes on to point out (among other things) syntax and diction errors in the poems. None of that exists in the following poem, however, as you will see. Nor is there the “confusion of tool and purpose” Blackmur finds. To say that Crane’s depiction of memory is imprecise in language is much like saying the vision of an impressionist is imperfect when compared to a photograph.

In any event, in this short lyrical poem enough of the undertow of the soul is apparent that it’s immediately comprehensible, even on a level beyond what language can convey.

My Grandmother’s Love Letters

from  White Buildings: Poems ([New York]: Boni & Liveright: 1926)

by Hart Crane

There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
Elizabeth,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

The inverse of memory, forgetting, is also treated by Crane in an early poem. This one is also free from syntactical and diction difficulties. But it more clearly shows the “logic of metaphor.” Forgetfulness is compared to a variety of dissimilar things, each of which adds to its qualities. Each one of those qualities, at first, is warm, enticing, comforting. Because memory is disturbing and unsettling and unwelcome (not just to the object as we saw in the last poem), forgetfulness must be comforting and warm. And each of the images so attests until we get to “white.” White is neither warm nor particularly comforting. And when we considered Melville’s great disquisition on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” we have to consider that forgetfulness is formal and stark and powerful and potentially evil.

Crane no doubt understood. Melville is not simply a foundation of American literary thought, he was of particular importance to Crane. Crane admired Melville and composed a poem to Melville’s tomb (published in the October 1926 issue of Poetry). But he also engaged in a series of revealing letters on his aesthetics with Poetry’s founder Harriet Monroe on this very subject. I think there is little doubt that Crane understood the terror of “white” as a metaphor.

Moon Goose by Kado (Ink on silk. 1930.)

Moon Goose by Kado (Ink on silk. 1930.)

Crane unfurls the terror of forgetfulness in much the way Melville unpacks the hidden significance of whiteness. For Crane, forgetfulness begins like a melody, then a soaring bird, then rain, a cottage, a child and finally whiteness. Melville, for his part, at first acknowledges the whiteness of angels’ garb before he gradually, ineluctably, shows that whiteness is the outer appearance of the great shark, and worse, the great whale. Crane’s series of metaphors is more compact (as would be expected in a poem, a short one at that, compared to a novel, a lengthy one indeed). But when the metaphor of whiteness is reached, the poem pivots and all the terrible force of forgetfulness is revealed, until it’s shown to have the power to bury gods.

The poem finishes with an appropriate apothegm that ties the power of memory to the power of forgetting. But the metaphors do that as well. The rain that is the forgetting in this poem is the girdle that restricts memory in the poem above. The bird which floats effortlessly, with fixed outstretched wings, is the opposite of memory, which is dangled by a single white hair.

Forgetfulness

from The Pagan (New York, New York), vol. 3 (August/September 1918)

by Hart Crane

Forgetfulness is like a song
That, freed from beat and measure, wanders.
Forgetfulness is like a bird whose wings are reconciled,
Outspread and motionless,—
A bird that coasts the wind unwearyingly.

Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest,—or a child.
Forgetfulness is white,—white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.

I can remember much forgetfulness.

The poetry of Crane is intimate and personal. But that does not make it either post-modern or incomprehensible. Artists reveal truths by means other than strict syntax or diction. If this were not true, there would only be prose.

Hamlet in Tibet: Hu’s Prince of the Himalayas

Promotional still from Prince of the Himalayas

Promotional still from Prince of the Himalayas, showing Purba Rgyal who plays Prince Lhamoklodan, the Hamlet of the film.

Last night the Rubin Museum of Art had a one-time showing of Sherwood Hu’s Prince of the Himalayas, one of the few theatrical showings of the film since it first premiered in the United States a little more than a year ago, at, of course, the Rubin Museum of Art. The Rubin Museum is a stunningly beautiful showcase for art of Tibet and surrounding areas, which has a very enlightened programming policy. But that is for another time. Sherwood Hu attended this showing.

The movie has received critical acclaim wherever it’s been shown, and, according to Hu, created such demand in China that many more prints than originally planned were rushed into production. In the years since it was released in 2006 it has had almost no showings in the United States. The Internet Movie Database says that it has grossed only $9,178 as of January 2012. The only explanation is that Hu’s Entertainment (the production company) must have no relations with any US distributors.

Sonamdolgar, who plays Odsaluyang, the Tibetan version of Ophelia.

Sonamdolgar, who plays Odsaluyang, the Tibetan version of Ophelia.

Notwithstanding its lack of success in the United States (or perhaps explaining it), it’s easy to see why the film would appeal to audiences who are not addicted to automobile pile ups and exploding buildings. The movie was filmed entirely in Tibet, and the gorgeous scenery is shown to stunning effect by wide-angle cinematography as well as cleverly choreographed long crane shots. It takes no effort to make Himalayan scenery inspiring, and the camera work does not draw attention to itself. The film is also filled with carefully framed face shots of the various members of the cast, all Tibetan, most of whom are beautiful (some stunningly) and the rest at least ruggedly handsome.

The Tibetan Gertrude and Claudius (played by Zomskyid and Dobrgyal).

The Tibetan Gertrude and Claudius (played by Zomskyid and Dobrgyal).

The action takes place in medieval Tibet, before the advent of Buddhism, and therefore the rituals are keyed to the Bon religion. Hu said that the setting was suggested to him by a living Buddha (tulku) with whom he discussed the project while still in incipient stages. The setting allows for two other features that are immediately captivating. First, the music (composed by Xuntian He), which is almost continuous through the film, is performed almost exclusively on percussion with solo flute and clarinet. The low (and stifled) pounding of the large (skin-covered ?) drums provides a riveting propulsive depth framing the action. Second, the costumes and sets (of villages, the palace and places of ritual) are staggering in their exotic strangeness. The statuary, the sacred places (the monumental stones, mountains and rivers) and building structures are foreign, but their spiritual significance is immediately intuited. The costumes suggest people who were both practical and spiritual: their religion partaking of and transcending nature. The rituals, both celebratory (as in the marriage feast) and grief-filled (as in the scene of Odsaluyang’s funeral) are visually sumptuous and moving in their outward representation of things mystical. The female dancers at the marriage feast are hypnotic.

It is, however, the story that remains. It is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, not only transported to a different place and time, but also told for almost the opposite purpose. The play was about revenge (and dynastic succession, but that part is neither here nor there). Here Hu says the film is about forgiveness. But even Hu’s synopsis is not entirely complete, because the forgiveness is not so much for what happened in the Shakespeare play, but rather for actions based on the belief that those things happened. Yet by and large those beliefs are mistaken. The film’s action may take place before Buddhism, but still, in this movie if not everything, at least the important things, are all an illusion. 

In the vast spaces of the Himalayas under the overwhelming presence of the mountains, ritual is more like a plea than a comfort.

In the vast spaces of the Himalayas under the overwhelming presence of the mountains, ritual is more like a plea than a comfort.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot changes because seeing the changes from Shakespeare’s version and watching how they play out (and often return to the action of the original play) is a great part of the illumination that the film aims for. I will hint at one major feature that allows for the plot changes: Hamlet’s dead and now spectral father is not the innocent victim crying out for just vengeance. In Shakespeare, the justice of revenge is taken as given. Here it is shown to be altogether wrong. The shaman (played by Luo Sang Da Wa) repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to stop Prince Lhamoklodan (the Hamlet figure played by Purba Rgyal) from carrying through his plan to slay his uncle (and now step-father). She explains how vengeance will lead to massacre, but Lhamoklodan is beyond persuasion at this point (whose resolve is very much unlike the Elizabethan Hamlet). When the ghost father sees that the Shaman has altered (somewhat) the course he intended, he cries out, “What is this new poison?” and she replies, “Love.” Incidentally, the figure of the shaman is cleverly added to the story, and it is she who produces the “play” which is designed to catch the conscience of the king.

Maternal and filial love and mutual misunderstanding.

Maternal and filial love and mutual misunderstanding.

What is daring about the retelling is that it uses almost none of the language of Shakespeare. And since the theme and characterizations are different, you might conclude that there is nothing left of Shakespeare. (Those fans of Elizabethan theatrical battles and sword fights will be happy to know that they remain, and Hu adds to them.) But Shakespeare is still the overpowering presence to the viewer, if at least as the counterweight. In Shakespeare, the intellectual action is philosophical, even when Hamlet is sure that there is more in heaven and earth that dreamed of in philosophy. Hamlet meets his existential crisis with philosophy, and the encounter drives him mad. Hu portrays the existential crisis in terms of mythology and mythological symbols. And if we are players in a universe that is governed by eternal mythological tropes, we are governed by obligations. The shaman says our obligation is love, but she means it in an entirely different way than the characters understand it. The characters divide love into categories: filial, maternal, paternal, matrimonial, sensual and they miss the point because all these categories conflict. And when one category of love is ended, unjustly, then the only response these characters (and we too) can have is hatred and desire for revenge.

Death and birth in one mythological trope. We all fulfill our role, and it goes on.

Death and birth in one mythological trope. We all fulfill our roles, and it goes on.

It is the unjust end of filial love that drive both Hamlet and Ophelia in this film mad. The loss of the object of their love creates in each of them hatred for the cause of the loss and then for everything else. Shakespeare’s Hamlet tries to use rationality to battle his alienation from everything, Prince Lhamoklodan tries to escape back to his studies in Persia but learns on the way that there can be no escape. In both cases he has to decide if he can fight the “sea of troubles,” and in both cases he decides to try. In both cases he loses, as he must. Ophelia in both treatments dies, but in Hu’s her death is complicated by other roles she has and can’t fulfill because of her alienation. When she does die, it’s while giving birth (she only understands the pain and the necessity for cutting the cord) in a scene suffused with mythological symbolism.

Hu said that the entire film was completed in less than 80 days. Two months were spent with the cast, living together, exercising and role-playing. The shooting took less than a month. The characters’ reactions to each other show how they have internalized the story and their personalities. Even the set shots and the facial close-ups reveal nuances that we only come to understand as we see how the story differs from what we expected. In this regard, Dobrgyal, who plays Claudius (Kulo-ngam in the film) is particularly noteworthy, because he is the character around whom all plotting revolves and the one whose motives are the most surprising. It would be interesting to view the film again, with the knowledge one obtains from the first viewing. When that will be, however, is a sad question. There doesn’t seem to be another showing scheduled in the United States (at least none in New York) although it does appear to be available on Netflix. The Rubin Museum announced before the showing that the film has been deposited in its permanent collection; I have no idea whether that allows anyone to see it, however.

It is unfortunate that the editing does not come up to the same standards as the acting and cinematography. There are jumps that are a bit unsettling to someone accustomed to the thing that Hollywood has down pat (for all its other shortcomings). It is a flaw that is particularly noticeable given the stately bearing of the characters and the deliberate pace of the tragedy. The very ending (which gives the film an oddly non-Shakespearian uplift) is also somewhat flat. It doesn’t seem to resolve anything or explain the need for the tragedies we’ve witnessed. If it is designed to assure us that things go on despite what we do, it’s probably unnecessary (or perhaps even a worse tragedy) and seems inconsistent with what we have seen. Or maybe it is nothing more than opportunities for others to disregard the shaman’s message. Perhaps Shakespeare here really had the best idea: when you have that many bodies on stages, there’s really nothing more to say.

Anniversary of the plagiarized version

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, and her consort, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, attended services today at Westminster Abbey to celebrate the 400th anniversary the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, a part-time poet himself, spent much time praising the strength of the English language contained in it.

No mention was made that the vast majority all the English words contained in translation authorized by James I came from William Tyndale. According to Tyndale’s modern biographer, Brian Moynahan, Tyndale’s words account for 84% of the King James Version New Testament and for 75.8% of the Old Testament books that he translated. Even the editors of the the Revised Standard Versions said that the King James Version “owed most, especially in the New Testament, to Tyndale.”

Of course a state sponsored religion, like the Church of England, tends to satisfy the needs of its sponsor. And Tyndale’s fate does not reflect kindly on either the Church or the monarchy. Henry VIII, the Anglican of convenience, and the the catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V connived to have Tyndale executed precisely for putting the Hebrew and Greek texts into vulgar English. Tyndale’s language, which was praised today before the current monarch, ran afoul of Henry’s 1530 proclamation “for the damning of erroneous books and heresies and prohibiting the having of Holy Scriptures translated into vulgar tongues”—the vulgar tongue in question was the language that the Archbishop of Canterbury today compared favorably to Shakespeare’s.

Tyndale was in Antwerp at the time at the time of the proclamation and out of the reach of Henry VIII. So it took catholic Charles V to arrange the kidnapping that brought Tyndale to Brussels where he was executed in 1536 with the tenderness that is usually extended by the religious against intellectuals who presume to infringe on their monopoly of truth.

“The description and manner of the burning of Paister Wylliam Tyndall” from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Actes and Monuments of these latter and perillous dayes, touching matters of the Church, ... by John Foxe (London: John Day: 1563), p. 519.

“The description and manner of the burning of Paister Wylliam Tyndall” from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Actes and Monuments of these latter and perillous dayes, touching matters of the Church, … by John Foxe (London: John Day: 1563), p. 519.)

A woodcut from the other Authorized Version of James I, Daemonologie. The scene takes place in Scotland where a group of accused witches, identified by confessed witch Geillis Duncaine, are being tortured to confess. refuse to do so before the King and even after being tortured privately in prison. Of course, once their bodies are shaved and searched and the mark of the Deuill discovered, they own up. (Daemonologie In Forme of a Dialogie Diuided into three Bookes by James Rx (n.p.: Robert Walde-graue: 1597), p. 88.)

The other English monarch celebrated today, James I, whose committee of translators relied mostly on the words of the executed heretic, was in the business of religious exegesis himself. In 1597, before his Authorized Version of god’s word, he produced his famous Daemonologie. In this book, the head of the Church of England relied on his own witch hunting days back when he was in Scotland to recommend for the whole kingdom the healthy practice of witch hunting (and burning).

The great 17th century English witch hunting soon followed. Even Shakespeare himself, with words as English as Tyndales, painted a kindom of witches (appropriately in Scotland) in Macbeth. The Puritans, who would kill James I’s son, nevertheless continued the enthusiasm of the father for examining and then killing women. But that is another story, of course. What we celebrate here today is the beauty and power of the language of a man the British monarchy condemned without trial for heresy. The words are now called the King James Version, after a monarch who advocated the religious necessity for burning women as witches.

Darwin was probably turning over in his grave (just beneath today’s festivities in Westminster Abbey).